MERCURY SERIES: MAKING A DIFFERENCE
Sometimes you look back and realise your whole life has prepared you for one moment.
And that moment occurred for Sharyn Mackenzie when she moved to Wollongong about 10 years ago and started attending Wollongong Baptist Church about the same time as a newly arrived refugee family. "When they came to our church I befriended them and started working with the family," Mrs Mackenzie said.
As more African families arrived she discovered they too had the same needs and she decided to organise a group so other people could volunteer to help refugees as well.
Read more inspiring stories hereWithin two years, SCARF (Strategic Community Assistance to Refugees) was born and now boasts about 120 active volunteers who provide assistance to refugees from 168 households.
Mrs Mackenzie said her fascination with people from different parts of the world began as a child in Fairfield where many migrants settled after the war.
"Our neighbours were Polish and German and Italian," she said. "Then in primary school I fell in love with indigenous culture. It really just captured me as a child."
After leaving school she found a job working with a dozen indigenous children on a cattle station near Halls Creek in Western Australia for 18 months.
"That was a very privileged time of my life; not many people have that opportunity to live closely with the community like that," she said.
Mrs Mackenzie moved on to work for the Christian organisation KYB (Know Your Bible) and had the opportunity to travel to countries such as Nepal, India, Fiji, Zimbabwe and Ukraine to work with women.
"I had this natural empathy for these indigenous women from wherever they were," she said.
In her next career change, she handled finances for conductors, opera singers, set designers and musicians and continued that until 2008 when SCARF became too big for her to do both.
When Mrs Mackenzie started the SCARF homework centre at the Wollongong City Library in 2005, there were fewer than 10 families involved but the number has steadily grown.
After-school homework support for refugee children remains the main focus for SCARF but it provides many other services including English for Adults, IT training, the L2P driver training program, workshops on citizenship, family law, workplace training, health and nutrition, a recycling and waste management enterprise, community gardens, traditional cuisine catering, an African women's sewing circle and social, sporting and cultural initiatives.
Mrs Mackenzie initially ran the service from the spare room of her house with no funding, but a lot of energy from volunteers.
SCARF was eventually able to open an office in the Piccadilly Centre.
The organisation is now supported financially by the annual Art4Refugees initiative run by volunteers Benita Andrews and Jane Coburn. SCARF also applies for project-specific funding.
Mrs Mackenzie said there was a generosity of spirit in Wollongong.
"I am not a Wollongong girl but I love Wollongong. The support has just been amazing to me.
"One girl can have a vision or an interest and do something that makes them feel good but this could not happen with one girl.
"It has just been beautiful to see people reach out so generously."
Mrs Mackenzie said employment was one of the greatest needs of refugees.
"If only we could provide employment for them there would be no reason for them ever to leave this beautiful place," she said. "They do love being here. But naturally enough they want to join into the community fully and the way you do that is to become employed."
Mrs Mackenzie said what she had achieved would also not have been possible without her husband Kel, a former accountant, who transported and provided driving lessons to members of refugee families.
"It has been a really lovely journey in so many ways," she said.
"Kel and I will often look across to each other and say 'it is amazing that we should be the lucky ones who get all this joy from this community arriving here'.
"But it couldn't have happened if it was just me or just me and Kel," Mrs Mackenzie added.
If you know someone who deserves to be recognised, please email Greg Ellis: GEllis@illawarramercury.com.au