MAKING A DIFFERENCE: Mercury series
Before graduating from university, Ally Kelly struggled with depression and a lack of self-confidence.
The 2012 Junior Chamber International Australian Member of the Year said many people would now be surprised to hear that she only found her voice when she discovered a way to help other people find theirs.
During the past three years, Ms Kelly has worked to support herself financially while she established a not-for-profit organisation that uses theatre to help youth tackle depression and mental health issues. The idea came while she was in the second year of her creative arts and psychology degree and seeking to combine her two areas of interest.
As a teenager she had also experienced the impact of depression on her mother and recalled not knowing where to go for help.
With the support of some friends in 2011 she established Mind Blank theatre productions to give young people an opportunity to talk in a non-threatening environment.
"When I realised that theatre has the opportunity for engagement and social change I realised there were a lot of people who could learn from it," she said.
"Knowing that our work has impacted thousands of people now really blows me away.
Mind Blank has achieved so much Ms Kelly was invited to speak on youth engagement to the Australian branch of the Psychology Association and was told her idea could work internationally.
But she knows none of that would have been possible without the generous support she has received in the Illawarra after her first show called Understanding Depression - Fill In The Blanks at the Phoenix Theatre in 2011.
It was made possible by an anonymous donation.
Everyone present engaged with the idea and the concept was further developed with the help of area health service professionals who were able to identify funding opportunities and assist with research evaluation.
Mind Blank productions have since been staged up and down the coast and are about to move into western Sydney as Ms Kelly's growing team prepares to move into new premises.
Volunteer Shane Chambers has offered the new creative development space in Swan Street for 12 months rent free.
It is called Renaissance Playhouse and will provide office, rehearsal and theatre space.
Ms Kelly would eventually like to have several theatre groups touring the country.
They would work in similar fashion to the Healthy Minds Theatre shows that have run with the help of Suicide Prevention Action Network in Wollongong and the Shoalhaven. There is presently interest in Canberra.
Mind Blank recently launched the Subconscious Understanding for Better Awareness (SCUBA) initiative with the help of funding from the IMB Community Foundation and the Teen Spirit Charitable Foundation and volunteers from Wollongong Rotaract.
It targets schools and features the cast replaying scenes after taking suggestions from the audience on how conflicts can be better resolved.
SCUBA was designed to encouraging youth to seek help for their emotional and social well-being and is presently in the middle of a 20-school tour.
Ms Kelly has consulted knowledgeable people such as SCUBA research evaluator Kerrie Searle, of Youth Mental Health, and academics including Professor Brin Grenyer, of the University of Wollongong's Illawarra Health and Medical Research Institute.
The productions become great research tools for a project called Breaking Down the Barriers and feedback from each show helps fine tune future scripts.