It’s a dream of many to leave this world knowing they have made a difference. And it’s a goal of many to help others less fortunate than themselves.
But not for Chris Turner. This man doesn’t wonder when he will have the time to devote to others, or if he will be able to contribute positively to something in order to make life better. Not because he doesn’t care. And not because he hasn’t thought about it.
But because this man is doing it already – living and breathing the change in the world he would like to see, fanning the sparks of an altruistic movement until it hopefully rages into an inferno.
Chris is the founder and CEO of the Sunshine Coast charity for disadvantaged children, SunnyKids, which aims to break intergenerational cycles of poverty, providing the hope and resilience necessary for young people to move forward, both as individuals and as a part of society.
“Every child should have the opportunity to reach their full potential, regardless of their circumstance,” Chris nods. “It’s a basic human right.”
Born in the UK, Chris moved to Australia when he was nine years old, his parents taking advantage of the 10-pound-pom ticket that was offered at the time.
“We arrived in Queensland and soon after I started school in Caboolture. It was a shock to the system. The different culture and climate hit me like a ton of bricks. I had moved from a cosmopolitan city to what was a country dairy farm at the time. I had left a school in the UK consisting of 150 kids, and joined one with 900. It gave me immediate exposure to what it was like to be different and how people responded to this. The experience profoundly altered the type of person I wanted to be.”
Gaining a trade as a panel beater after school, Chris embarked on a 12-month trip overseas when he was just 20, and once again found his mind the subject of a major life lesson.
“I had finished my apprenticeship, but I already knew that it was not quite my calling. So I set off to Europe with a negligible stash of cash in my pocket and the aim of managing to get by on $2.50 a day – which was all I could afford at the time. And I did. I learnt to be resourceful and to think on my feet. I made alliances. I swapped favours. I travelled to the UK, Norway, France, Germany, Switzerland, Denmark, Sweden, Holland and Belgium.
This trip became another significant event in my life in terms of shaping me. I immersed myself in the cultural melting pot of Europe and I revelled in the different views and people I came across. It forged my view of the world and instilled in me a boldness I had not possessed before. I realised that if you wanted to do anything badly enough in life, you could.”
Having lived such a fulfilling year, on returning to Australia, Chris found himself wanting to spread his zest for life to others and soon began helping young people as a youth worker. Once he began, he knew he had found his niche, and like all things that are born of passion, he never looked back.
“Soon after I started working in the field, I was offered the opportunity to set up a youth homelessness service in regional Victoria. So I moved states and got stuck in. Once I had started, I could see the immediate results we were achieving and it was incredible. This motivated me to push further and I soon found myself heading up a whole range of youth support services, including a youth-oriented radio, camps, alcohol-free entertainment etc.”
Such was Chris’s dedication, that he began to recognise his skills were limited in their scope, so in 1997 took himself off to university part-time (while still working) to study a Bachelor of Social Science, majoring in youth work.
“The course was one of the first that recognised youth work as a profession and offered specific advice and tools in this regard. Youth work is very specialised and theories of youth are unique, so it was a real breakthrough to be able to learn what shapes young people and how to influence them. The sector up until this point had been run with good intentions, but not enough rigour. Thankfully times were changing.”
Moving to the Sunshine Coast for a quality family way of life in 2000 (with his wife and two children) saw Chris next become involved with the Caloundra Youth Focus, a government-funded youth accommodation service. Shortly after this he was offered a position which would lead to the path he walks today, as Chris took over the running of the Coast’s family violence refuge, Najidah.
“Najidah was a women’s refuge,” Chris explains. “On my first day when I went in, I expected it to be full of women. What I didn’t expect was to see 20 kids running around also. It shocked me. It was that day that the planning for SunnyKids began.”
What Chris also discovered was that the refuge’s historical practice of supporting the mums, with the hope that the benefits would trickle down to the children, was not working. He wondered what would happen if the kids became more of the focus and got the same amount of help as the mums.
“Just supporting the mums was not breaking the intergenerational cycle of domestic abuse. I actually met a fourth generation child of the refuge at the centre and it was then that I realised the program was not working as well as it could. I wanted to break that cycle, and the way to achieve this was by helping the kids.”
And in this way, SunnyKids was born. A concept at first, but soon a centre in its own right, focusing on supporting children, as well as mums, who were in disadvantaged circumstances. Chris even spent time in New York to gather inspiration and ideas on how SunnyKids could best assist.
With some hard work, SunnyKids soon had partners on board in the form of legal teams, schools, counsellors, psychologists, teachers and therapists, all offering their services for free to assist in a project that seemed to touch everyone’s hearts. If the cycle of disadvantage could be broken for just one family, it would be worth it.
And not just one family has been helped. SunnyKids has assisted thousands.
“Education has been key,” explains Chris. “We are trying to prevent a whole range of social problems in the future by lifting kids out of disadvantage, and we are succeeding. We have set up the SunnyKids program in schools to enable kids from difficult backgrounds to reach their full potential. The feedback has been immense. Donors can now sponsor a SunnyKids child at school, so that they can take advantage of the program, for only $40 a year. It’s such a little amount, but makes an almighty difference to a child’s life.
“In 2012 we ran a national Literacy and Wellbeing campaign connected to Remembrance Day with the message that kids are made of the same stuff as the heroic service men and women we remember. We had 1,500 schools and 350,000 kids participate around Australia and it became a world record reading event. We are thrilled with the impact this has had.”
Chris is a man on a mission ñ thank the universe for people like him. He has single-handedly changed the future for many children, who will forever be indebted to SunnyKids, but he sees it only as the “right thing to do”.
“I wish the world could be the way we teach a seven-year-old to be,” smiles Chris.
“If only we could all play nicely and share.”
Now there’s a thought.