The Difference We Make
Thirteen years ago, I was cast on a journey I never anticipated. My world changed dramatically when my sweet son, Declan, was diagnosed with autism at just 20 months old.
The diagnosis came like a bolt from the blue, leaving my husband and I feeling surreal and numb. We knew little about what it truly meant but were determined to help our precious child.
I started Declan in various therapies, hoping for quick results, but the reality was different. Declan was nonverbal, non-communicative, and mostly unresponsive; it was as if he lived in his own isolated world.
Desperate to find help, I discovered a play therapy centre. Unfortunately, they hesitated to accept Declan because he wouldn’t even sit down, not even to eat. His diet became increasingly restrictive, and he was hyperactive, not sleeping, and utterly out of control. Adding to the turmoil, Declan’s father spent less and less time at home, and I was left feeling lost and alone.
In search for guidance and support, I heard of St Anthony’s Family Care through word of mouth. It seemed like a long shot, given the previous rejections, but to my immense relief, Declan was welcomed with open arms and understanding hearts. For the first time since his birth, I felt that I was doing something right as a mother.
Declan began attending the inclusive daycare at St Anthony’s, and for the first time in years, I felt empowered to help my son. The dedicated staff at the centre offered constructive plans and ways to assist Declan, and I finally had a sense of purpose.
As time passed, Declan’s challenges became more apparent, and he was assessed as having a severe intellectual deficit at the age of three. The professionals told me that my son would need lifelong care and might never speak, toilet train, or engage with others. They advised me to give up and move on. It was a crushing blow.
Declan’s father, unable to cope with the grim news, left us, sinking into a severe depression himself. This period was devastating for both Declan and I, as we grieved the absence of a loving father and partner. In the midst of this turmoil, St Anthony’s was unwavering in their support. Instead of accepting defeat, they championed Declan’s cause alongside me, giving us a sense of purpose and belonging.
St Anthony’s persisted with toilet training, expanded Declan’s dietary range, engaged him in various activities, and addressed his growing list of sensory needs. Slowly but surely, Declan began to make progress. He started participating in weekend activities with Disability Services at St Anthony’s, which boosted his confidence and sense of self-worth.
He built relationships with trained staff who understood his needs better than anyone else could, and he experienced activities that were previously out of reach. Declan’s world expanded, and with it, his ability to communicate.
St Anthony’s continued to support me every step of the way as Declan transitioned to school. They helped me to apply to special schools that were appropriate for his abilities, ensuring that he had access to support plans and the same approaches that had already made a difference in his life.
At the age of 13, Declan continues to access St Anthony’s Disability Services on a regular basis. While he remains nonverbal, he has found alternative ways to communicate. His infectious laughter and unique sense of humour have become his voice, and he uses visual cards, pointing, and gestures to convey his needs and feelings. He even makes eye contact and shares hugs with those around him. He participates in activities like cooking, craft, painting, ball games, and his absolute favourite – playing frisbee.
I have so much to thank St Anthony’s for; they have become an integral part of Declan’s life. I look forward to the future when he will have the opportunity to access St Anthony’s services for young adults, Forge, after completing his schooling.
Ensuring the meaningful inclusion of children at Figtree Early Learning Centre is not just a social and moral responsibility; it is also an adventure of discovery, laughter, and growth that we have been on for the last 12 years.
At Figtree, we believe that every child has the right to be a significant part of their community. What better way to support their journey than through the vibrant, fun, and exciting programs offered at Figtree? Our programs are developed and implemented by the dedicated team of educators at Figtree and aim to support children’s communication, self-help skills and the development of their social interactions alongside peers. Friendships flourish in an environment that encourages collaboration, empathy, and a joy of shared experiences.
In addition to providing care to typically developing children, Figtree also provides specialised support for children with disabilities and developmental delays. Children attending the service have a range of disabilities that include Autism Spectrum Disorder, Down Syndrome, Global Developmental Delays as well as vision and hearing impairments.
For all children, the team imagine an education and care experience that goes beyond traditional boundaries. Partnerships with families and other early intervention professionals are not just encouraged but celebrated to ensure the best outcomes for the children at the service as we collaborate to curate programs with the feedback of all stakeholders, always ensuring the child is at the centre.
The team of educators at Figtree strive to make sure that our centre is a place that sees each and every child as a unique individual, with a voice that deserves to be heard and ideas that deserve to be explored based on their interests and their evolving needs.
In this thriving early childhood education and care space, a sense of belonging isn’t just a concept; it’s a daily reality, where staff ensure a warm embrace that tells every child, “You are an essential thread in the tapestry of our village.”
Within the new St Anthony’s Family Care village, our purpose-built childcare centre, has been built with every nook and cranny designed to inspire wonder and curiosity for all children. The expansive outdoor area is not just a space to run and play; it is a canvas for imagination and discovery. Key when supporting children with a range of diverse needs.
At Figtree, children are provided with the opportunity to climb structures, discover the joy of the natural environment and spark creativity at every turn. In this village, peers become partners in the grand adventure of childhood.
What truly sets Figtree Early Learning Centre apart is the team of committed staff who believe wholeheartedly in the boundless abilities of all children. These are not just caregivers; they are mentors, cheerleaders, and guides on the exciting journey of learning and self-discovery.
The magic lies in the belief that when we support the inclusion of every child, we’re not just building a village; we’re crafting a world where diversity is celebrated, and every child’s unique light shines brightly.
We are on a mission to create a world where every child not only belongs but thrives, and where the journey of inclusion is as thrilling as the destination itself.
Executive Manager Early Learning Services
Our lovely little girl Evie, born in 2005, was diagnosed with severe autism and developmental delay at age three.
The early years with Evie were very hard. She had severe sleeping problems which kept us exhausted, and her challenging behaviours made it very difficult to go on any kind of outing or see family and friends.
Although Evie had a lovely school to go to, our weekends and school holidays were long, lonely and isolated.
When Evie was about nine years old, some friends suggested we contact St Anthony’s Family Care and, in many ways, I feel that suggestion saved our lives.
From our earliest interactions with St Anthony’s, the genuine, caring and cheerful culture of the organisation was obvious.
Evie first started in the Saturday Community Access program nine years ago. The amazing carers at St Anthony’s, with their gentle and persistent support, enabled Evie to experience so many wonderful adventures – the Royal Easter Show, Chinese New Year festivals, playgrounds, picnics, discos, bowling and swimming, just to name a few!
The St Anthony’s Afterschool Group Program allowed me to keep working at a job I loved, and the Vacation Care program simply transformed school holidays into opportunities for all sorts of fun for Evie and allowed us much needed respite.
Now seventeen, Evie stays overnight in the beautiful new cottages. These stays allow her to develop the confidence to be away from home and challenges her to keep developing her living skills.
In the coming years, as she moves into adulthood we hope she will be able to participate in the Forge Young Adult Day Program.
Over the years, St Anthony’s have been amazingly flexible. When workdays or work hours have changed, when Evie hasn’t wanted to go on a particular group outing or when more help has been needed at short notice, St Anthony’s have always managed to support us.
The carers at St Anthony’s are truly a special group of people, seeming to really understand and enjoy each child for the individuals they are. We are greeted with smiles every time we arrive, and Evie runs in the door, impatient for us to go. Her happy experiences at St Anthony’s are a gift for which we will always be profoundly grateful.
A Village Full of Heart
Our story at St Anthony’s Family Care (SAFC) first began in May 2020 when our first child, Isabella, was 18 months old and started attending Figtree Early Learning Centre. It was at the height of the COVID pandemic and while this was an overwhelming time within the world, the SAFC village and team at Figtree helped create a sense of safety and security within the community we were joining.
Shortly after joining St Anthony’s, in June of 2020, we found out that our second child would be born not only with Down Syndrome, but also with a significant congenital heart defect. When we arrived at the ultrasound appointment the technicians were very quiet as they looked at the scan. My husband and I knew they were going to say that the scan had shown that something was not as it should be, and we prepared ourselves. A Genetic Counsellor took us to a private room and explained that the scan, not only showed a high nuchal fold (thickness at the back of the baby’s neck), a small baby for his age and other markers for Down Syndrome, but our baby also had at least two holes in his heart.
We were advised that since we were seeing this at such an early stage of pregnancy (11 weeks), the baby was likely to have other health problems too. We were presented with a long list of statistical medical conditions that are more common in people with Down Syndrome and were told that our baby had a 1 in 3 chance of miscarriage or stillbirth. If by some miracle, our baby did survive the birth, there was a good chance he wouldn’t live very long and would likely need immediate surgery to try and repair the damage to his heart.
To say that we were filled with grief and sadness is an understatement, but we decided to proceed with the pregnancy wondering what this would mean for our family.
When our son was finally born in December 2020, we named him Theodore which means “Gift from God”. Teddy, as we affectionately call him, was truly our little miracle but the challenges of having a son with Down Syndrome were only starting.
At a scan when Teddy was two months old, we found out things were much worse with his heart than first thought. It was at this time that the support and well wishes from the SAFC community really helped our family. The Figtree staff were quick to offer additional days of care for Isabella, so she could continue to thrive and develop alongside her friends with a sense of security and routine, while we took the extra time needed to care for Teddy.
SAFC was also kind enough to cover the fees during this time, through their Mary MacKillop Canonisation Fund, which significantly helped our family financially at this time.
Following successful heart surgery in April 2021 we were able to start making longer term plans for Teddy. The one decision we never had to struggle with as a family was where Teddy would go for childcare. From the minute we knew our son had Down Syndrome, we began speaking to the team at Figtree and were always reassured that Teddy would not only be welcomed with open arms, but also fully included in the programs offered at the centre. Something I have since discovered isn’t necessarily true for many other families who continue to face barriers in accessing inclusive early childhood education for their child with a disability.
Since starting at Figtree in January 2023, the staff at Figtree Early Learning Centre have been magnificent. To assist Teddy with communication, the staff are now learning Auslan (sign language) so Teddy can make his wants and needs understood.
The team have also taken the time to meet on many occasions to help ensure the learning environment offers Teddy everything he needs to flourish.
Teddy loves spending time with his peers and excitedly falls out of my arms and into the welcoming hugs of the Educators each day he attends.
As we plan for Teddy’s future, we look forward to a partnership with the SAFC community as we help our son learn to take his first steps, communicate effectively, feed himself and continue developing relationships with his peers and carers.
We sincerely thank the SAFC and Figtree community for their ongoing support and look forward to a bright and happy future for both our children and whole heartily agree with the SAFC tagline ‘it takes a village to raise a child’.
– Louise Burke
(Teddy and Isabella’s Mum)