At the weekend I attended the celebration dinner of the annual Student Leadership Conference run by the Alliance of Girls’ Schools (Australasia) – a fabulous 4 day conference in which Head Girls and their Deputies from girls’ schools in Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, Singapore, the Phillippines and further afield, including the US, are led through a journey of self-discovery and affirmation of their ability to lead themselves and their peers. The dinner – the first time I had attended, obviously – was held this year at the Women’s College at the University of Sydney, and the guest speaker was an amazingly modest woman who held the hall – all 160 girls plus numerous school principals and guests – in thrall.
Her name was Lynne Sawyers, and you can hear her story here, on YouTube, and read an interview with her here. She is (very) fast approaching her 70th birthday, but is still active in the role for which she was awarded the honour of Australia’s Local Hero 2012 – the role of foster parent. She and her husband have fostered more than 200 children over the past few decades, and her utter commitment to giving a better life to those in need shone through the words in her speech. She recognised, when her own youngest child was still a baby, that there were many children whose childhood was far less happy than was hers as a child, and she resolved to do something about it. Sometimes children stayed with her for a few days, sometimes for several years. She talked about them with pride but also with a modesty about her role that underplayed her crucial influence on the life of these young people.
Not all children have the benefit of a stable family background; even those who do can still suffer from anxieties that take them off track in life. Young people need significant adults in their lives as well as their parents and their friends, to help them test out who they are and work out in what direction they should be headed – not just to please themselves, but to ensure that they make a really valuable contribution to the lives of others. These significant adults – whether they are sports coaches, teachers, close family friends, teachers or indeed foster parents – can help provide the glue in the lives of young people, giving them the courage and means to reach out and fulfil their own, immense potential.
Lynne Sawyers embodied that essence of significant adult, and the girls who heard her speak understood this. At the end of the questions after her speech, one girl went up to the podium and said: “I don’t have a question; I just want to give you a hug.” She did, the hall of the Women’s College erupted, and we all shared in the recognition of the power of humility and service.
We can learn so much from the great women of this world.