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Meet Lee Santi; NGC Staff Reflect On Our Decade of Disruption

Lee Santi is one of our incredible Education Support Officers. But the assistance she provides to our young people - and our whole staffing team - goes far beyond the classroom.

Whether it's being a shoulder to cry on in tough times, a source of encouragement when tackling new learning goals or a mastermind behind our highly anticipated formals and Christmas celebrations, she is always putting our students' wellbeing first.

We sat down with Lee to talk about what brought her to NGC, the importance of positive reinforcement for young people and how it feels to see previous students out in the community.

What brought you to NGC?

When I was studying for my Certificate IV in Youth Work, I volunteered for Youth Connections (which was originally the parent company of NGC). It was an incredible experience. Even though the school wasn't yet established, so much of the philosophy that still guides NGC today was in that foundational program. Once Andrea had been approved to start NGC, I was so eager to come back and was lucky to get a job as a Youth Worker/Teachers' Aide.

I loved the opportunity to help young people who weren't going to mainstream school and were slipping through the cracks in such a practical, personalised way. I have previously completed some placements in other youth centres where young people could drop in and talk to us on an ad-hoc basis, but it was nowhere near as impactful. Here, we were able to consistently support young people within a structured program that addressed a lot of their needs at once. Establishing the school enabled us to take that to a whole new level. 

How does NGC represent a disruption within the education system? What are we doing differently?

NGC is unlike any school I know of and there are so many big and small accommodations we make for our students. There is a big emphasis on choice and spontaneity. It sounds simple but the difference is that our staff can work together to be flexible in how they get things done. If something isn't working, we have the freedom to try something different or get outside or give young people a movement or sensory break. I think our former students are our biggest advertisements that what we are doing really works.

In the classroom, we break everything down to its most simple form so it's accessible to everyone and take the time to work one-on-one. There can be a huge range of abilities; some of our students have gone their whole lives up until Year 10 not knowing how to read and others are capable of extension work. At NGC, everyone can be catered for in a way that just wouldn't be possible in a big mainstream school.

Outside of the classroom, there is so much support for young people's wellbeing. Whether they are dealing with some complex mental health issues, having trouble at home or in need of a healthy breakfast or a lift to school every morning, our team has the skills to help them.

How does NGC disrupt the negative life trajectories of our young people? How do we offer them an alternative pathway?

Many of our young people haven't had enough experiences that show them that they are valuable and important. So much of what we do here at NGC is about helping them realise what they are capable of. It can take a while to earn their trust after they have had hard times in mainstream schools or within their homes or communities but it's so worth the effort. When they settle in, they start seeing themselves in a new way.

Positive reinforcement is key to this. We have Rewards Excursions every term where young people are able to secure their spot on the excursion through consistent attendance and behaviour. I love seeing our students work hard to achieve this goal and to enjoy an experience that they would likely never get to do without the school.

Celebrations are another way we encourage our young people and make them feel like they belong. I always help with our Year 12 graduations and formals, and our annual Christmas event and it's amazing to see how these have grown over the years. Some students have never got dressed up for a fancy occasion or enjoyed a hot Christmas lunch and presents. So to see their innocent joy when they receive a's priceless. While many of our students have experienced challenges beyond their years, they are ultimately just teenagers and they deserve to feel that excitement. These celebrations make NGC feel like a family.

Why have you stuck with NGC since the beginning? What motivates you to keep showing up and doing this work?

This isn't a job you do for money or glamour; you do it because you genuinely want to help young people. And the rewards are so huge. It is such a wonderful feeling to know you have made a difference in their young lives. One of my favourite experiences is to have our former students visit NGC or to run into them while out and about. To know they are alive, healthy and well, that they're enjoying what they're doing or growing their own little families...there's nothing quite like it.

I love my role because I get so much one-on-one time with our students. It's almost like being the mother of the group because I'm always figuring out what they need at any given time. A lot of what I do is focused on building a trusting relationship where young people feel like they can talk to me. But something you don't necessarily expect is how much empathy they develop as a result. It's a pretty amazing feeling when a student might see I'm a bit stressed and ask me a question about how I'm going. That tells me that the care and respect that the staff show makes them want to model that same behaviour. I never tire of seeing our young people graduate and feel proud of themselves - the end result of years of dedication and effort. That's why I got into youth work in the first place.


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