This NAIDOC week the theme is “Because of her, I can…”. For the team at VERTO, this is a poignant one, as the key leader of our Indigenous program, Mary Croaker, embodies this theme perfectly. 

Mary has been involved in the Central West Indigenous community all her life, having grown up in the area as well as working in it, in a number of professional roles across her working life. Now the Indigenous Advancement Strategy (IAS) Coordinator for VERTO, Mary is directly responsible for running VERTO’s Youth Leadership Program.

The program is focused on improving educational outcomes for Aboriginal students, helping them to gain valuable leadership skills. VERTO delivers the Youth Leadership Program through funding provided by the Australian Government as part of the Indigenous Advancement Strategy.

We think it’s best to highlight Mary’s excellent work in this space in her own words:

“I started just over a year ago with VERTO, focusing on the Indigenous programs we run throughout the Central West community. For me, it’s something very close to my heart, being both emotionally and professionally connected with our community for such a long time. Helping our youth is absolutely crucial, so as an area of focus it’s something I’m incredibly proud to be a part of.  

In my personal view, our Youth Leadership Program is all about enhancing our children. I personally don’t like the word empower, these kids are already empowered, and it’s our job to just add the environment, one in which they can learn the additional skills they need, those that will help them when they enter their post-school years. If we can help them grow as young leaders, then the chance is there for them to follow their dreams and break the cycle that so often holds our children back. 

Being able to represent our community, to engage the Elders and Women’s groups, to bring to life our culture, is something that I feel has really made a difference. Their views and voices have become a part of our program. 

The children participating in it…they have become incredibly important to me. The way the leadership skills they learn make a difference: I see a lift in the way they see themselves. We’re able to help define the questions about their heritage and help them find the answers they need, it truly lights them up from the inside, like oxygen to fire. It’s something I’m truly proud of. 

It’s really making a difference. I see so many examples of local children learning invaluable leadership and life skills. It’s given us so many success stories at VERTO. 

One example really stands out for me: Recently, a group of young girls from a local Year 7 class we work with, showed how the program can help our youth. We had an opportunity for a girls dance group to participate this week in NAIDOC activities, and I was struggling to find the right group to be involved. When these girls heard what I needed, they took it upon themselves to become involved, proactively approaching me about participating. They stood up, took a leadership position and said, ‘We want to be involved’. Not only did they become involved, they took over everything from the specific dance they want to perform to the music, right down to the costumes they wish to wear. It’s a great example of how being involved in the program for just two years has grown the confidence and leadership skills in these young women. 

There are just so many good stories about the results we’ve achieved. I’m very proud of what the VERTO program has contributed to our community.”

Mary Croaker