Q&A with Madeleine Buchner

We’ve remained flexible, resilient and open-minded to the challenges thrown our way.

Q&A with Madeleine Buchner, Founder of Little Dreamers

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Tell us a little about yourself and what you do in the community and youth sector?

Hello! I’m Maddy, and I’m the Founder and CEO of Little Dreamers. We’re Australia’s leading Young Carer organisation, supporting young people aged four to 25 who provide care for a family member with a disability, illness or addiction.

I was 16 when I created and launched Little Dreamers, with the vision of addressing a significant gap in the healthcare system that should never have existed. Who was caring for the Young Carers? This question was inspired by my own experience as a carer for my brother, who has a range of chronic illnesses, and my mum, now a breast cancer survivor. I wanted to provide the support network that I so desperately needed at the time, but didn’t have access to.

12 years later, we’re a team of 45 staff and 150 volunteers across VIC, NSW and QLD, supporting more than 5,000 Young Carers nationwide. Little Dreamers programs are co-designed, developed and led by Young Carers for Young Carers, providing wrap-around support that caters to a range of age groups, locations and needs. We’re a fast-moving, proactive organisation driven by our values - hungry, humble and kind - at the core of everything we do.

From first-hand experience and research, we know that taking on caring responsibilities can have significant long-term impacts on a young person. In 2016, The Australian Child Wellbeing Project identified Young Carers as one of Australia’s most at-risk groups of young people.

Notably, Young Carers often report feeling socially isolated, show signs of poor mental health, and have difficulty transitioning into education and employment. Young Carers are almost twice as likely to be disengaged from school as their peers (Warren, D. & Edwards, B., 2016) and two in three Young Carers experience mental health challenges (McAndrew et al., 2012). That’s where we come in. Little Dreamers’ range of direct support programs target five key areas of risk: identity, health and wellbeing, social connection, education and employment, and financial literacy.

Our programs include Dream Experiences, school holiday respite, mentoring and tutoring, in-school education and training, an online peer support platform, and a tailored personal development program. Within the wider community, we also focus on raising awareness and advocating for policy change, which has most recently seen us engage 15 Young Carer Ambassadors from right around Australia.

Covid-19 has impacted all of us including how the youth and community sector works - how did it impact your work?

The past two years have shown us, more than ever before, the importance of our one-of-a-kind programs. We saw a 218% increase in requests for support at the peak of COVID-19, which has remained consistent ever since.

As we expected, the pandemic posed increased anxieties and challenges for Young Carers who look after a loved one with a complex health need. Young Carers faced restricted access to essential services, respite opportunities, social interaction and education, among many other things. This meant that often, increased responsibilities fell on the Young Carers themselves to assist and support their family member with everyday tasks.

The Little Dreamers team worked hard to move 80% of our programs online throughout the pandemic. This meant that while many social services for Young Carers ceased during the COVID-19 crisis, Young Carers have still been able to access online school holiday programs, virtual one-on-one and group mentoring, regular online check-ins and additional case management.

What is an example of an innovative program or initiative that you implemented during Covid-19 that you consider successful?

One of the most significant gaps in support that Young Carers faces was the challenge of remote learning and balancing this with their caring roles. In response, we soft-launched an online tutoring program at Little Dreamers, with over 30 Young Carers taking up this offer in less than two weeks.

Little Dreamers launched Online Tutoring based on an expressed need from Young Carers and their families throughout the pandemic. The program mobilised a team of volunteers, who are experts in different subjects across primary and secondary school, to provide one-on-one, tailored educational support for Young Carers.

At a time when we saw thousands of young people learning and completing their school work from home, it has been critical to provide extra support to those who have a caring role in their family, as many do not have the familial support to provide help and guidance with school work.

“As a Young Carer, my school attendance and ability to complete schoolwork have been impacted throughout my life. Little Dreamers’ tutoring program has allowed me to receive extra support in subjects that I find challenging in order to build my confidence and proficiency.

I received tutoring for my Maths and Chinese classes. My Maths tutor was incredibly helpful as she provided me with one-on-one support that is often difficult to get in a classroom environment. These tutoring sessions allowed me to focus on the specific areas that I needed help with so that I was able to keep up with the rest of the class’ progress.

Overall, tutoring has enabled me to be more confident and relaxed at school. Now that I am keeping on top of my workload, I feel less stressed and can better balance my caring role and student responsibilities.” Jacq, 16

Looking ahead for the rest of 2021/2022, how are you planning for the uncertain future ahead in terms of your work?

In response to the pandemic, we’ve created virtual and hybrid (a combination of in-person and online) solutions to program delivery, and we’ve seen a significant increase in reach and engagement with programs that don’t necessarily require in-person participation.

Thanks to new online programs introduced at the height of the pandemic, such as Hour of Power, Online Mentoring and Online Tutoring, we’ve been able to achieve our rural and regional delivery targets three years earlier than planned.

Moving forward, we’re harnessing the convenience of online programs for our Young Carers and staff with a fixed hybrid program delivery model. We acknowledge that online programs eliminate some of the most common logistical barriers that Young Carers face to accessing support, and we’re passionate about ensuring that all young people with caring roles have equal opportunities to receive the support they need.

While the pandemic and its effects may be here to stay, so too are we. Over the past year and a half, we’ve remained flexible, resilient and open-minded to the challenges thrown our way. It’s with this mindset that we’re headed into the coming year, eager to reach, engage and support even more Young Carers around Australia.

What help or support do young people need to really thrive in this new Covid World? Where can they get this?

The main thing that young people need is social connection and support in their transition back into a routine. Young people have felt isolated and lonely throughout the pandemic. Remote learning, limited social opportunities and the many other side effects of extended lockdowns have most certainly contributed to a decline in the mental health of our youth.

But for many Young Carers, lockdown also brought an element of comfort and ease due to being more readily and consistently available to provide care for their loved one when needed. Being separated from family members and loved ones – at school, for social activities, and other things – can bring on increased levels of anxiety for Young Carers, something we saw long before the pandemic began. Coupled with the social anxiety that will almost certainly accompany the transition out of lockdown, it’s no wonder the new post-lockdown world seems incredibly daunting.

Young people need mental health and social support at this time, more than ever. They need to know they are being supported in their transition back to face-to-face learning, and to have their emotions and anxieties validated by their teachers, parents, friends, counsellors and adults in their lives.

Anything else you’d like to share from your experience to help our readers and the youth community?

We have recently launched a campaign called ‘Help Us Grow’, which acknowledges the difficulties Little Dreamers faced during the pandemic and calls on our community to help us to continue to support Young Carers. You can find out how to support Little Dreamers and help us grow here: https://www.littledreamers.org.au/helpusgrow/

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