Picture by Simone De Peak, Newcastle Herald
AGED just 17, Natalia Hogan carries more responsibilities than many people who are a decade older.
Natalia is a house captain at St Paul’s Catholic College Booragul, studying for her Higher School Certificate in the hope of becoming a doctor, has two jobs, lives independently in a studio apartment and manages her own finances, cooking, cleaning, washing and transportation.
“This is my life – I just get up and do it,” Natalia said.
“If I’d had a different experience when I was younger I would think it was strange, but this is just normal to me.”
Natalia is one of the young people deemed at risk of homelessness who have secured one of 21 tenancies at Samaritans Student Accommodation at Wickham.
The service doesn’t receive government funding, but is sponsored by Orica, Jesmond Lions and the upcoming Bean Counters Ball.
Places are available for people aged 16 to 25 with developed independent living skills who need accommodation to pursue their education and training goals.
Natalia was considered mature enough to move in at 15.
Participants meet with a support worker and are matched with a mentor.
Natalia said her mentor – a high school teacher – was like a “big sister”, who had helped her compare car insurance prices and find an English tutor.
“This place gives people like me a second chance at life,” Natalia said.
“It allows you to flourish so you can start again. It’s important to have a safe place you can stay and not have to worry about things that children living in normal houses would not have to worry about. I couldn’t imagine where I’d be – or who I would be – if I did not find this place. It’s definitely allowed me to change my life, to focus on studying and myself – my health and relationships with my friends and family.”
Natalia spent her childhood between family refuges and foster carers, before moving in with a relative between the ages of 12 and 14.
At school, she pretended “like nothing was happening – like I was a normal kid”.
“I was so scared I’d end up as nothing,” she said.
“I’d get so down and wanted to get out of the situation I was living in. I did not see any hope for myself. I thought ‘If I’m going through this everyday, how will I get anywhere?’ I wanted to be able to succeed, to be educated and be able to have a loving family that was functional – when I have kids to be a good mother.
“I did not want anyone to go through what I went through because of me.”
She left with one bag of belongings and stayed on friend’s couches and with her then-boyfriend’s family “who continue to be a constant support”, before relocating to a Samaritans refuge at Maitland.
Samaritans community service manager for child, youth and family Lauren Fisher said “right from the get go”, it was clear Natalia was “extremely determined not to let the significant difficulties that were outside her control take control of her”.
“From the first time she came into the refuge, I knew she was going to achieve great things and whatever she wants to in life,” Ms Fisher said.
“It would not surprise me if she ended up Prime Minister if that’s what she wanted to do. She has an incredible amount of resilience – I’d love to be able to bottle it and clone it for other young people.”
Natalia moved to Wickham in July 2016 and received Centrelink “special benefits” and rental assistance, as well as support under the Homelessness Youth Assistance Program for children aged 12 to 16.
When she turned 16 she started to receive Youth Allowance as well as Centrelink rental assistance and help under the Rent Choice Youth program.
But she still has to find $160 a fortnight for her $175 a week apartment.
St Paul’s has waived her school fees, but Natalia has researched and successfully applied for Mentor Support Network and The Smith Family scholarships to pay for essentials including books, excursions and uniforms.
She gave her Family and Community Services scholarship of $1000 to her school, both last year and this year.
Assistant principal James Furey said Natalia returned half of the vouchers she was offered to help purchase her blazer, saying “someone else might need it”.
“You don’t see that every day, but she’s just that sort of kid,” he said.
“She’s very impressive and we’re lucky to have her. She’s positive, passionate about social justice, contributes to our community, is a diligent and engaged student and a genuinely nice person.”
Natalia describes her time at St Paul’s – which she attended for part of year seven and rejoined in year nine – and the two years living at Wickham as the most calm in her life.
“At first it did not feel real, just having a stable place to live – somewhere I was not going to get kicked out of the next day,” she said.
“The feeling was incredible – I’d never had it in my whole life, knowing I would not have to go somewhere else, that this place was mine. Finally, I have somewhere that’s mine.”
Natalia said she did not realise the seriousness of her early life experiences until recently.
“I did not think I’d been through that much, I just thought ‘That’s life’, so I did not feel sorry for myself,” she said.
“If I’m with friends who are complaining about little things, about their mum being away so they have to cook their own dinner, they’ll look at me and stop and say ‘sorry!’ I’ll say ‘Are you serious? There’s so many things that could be happening’. I look at things I do have, rather than things I don’t have, and I’m grateful.
“Everything happens for a reason and if I had not been through what I’ve been through I would not be the person I am today, I would not have skills and be able to do so much more than my friends. I would not have the opportunities I have now.”
Natalia said the key to her success was organisation and good time management. She swears by her wall planner.
Natalia sat the Undergraduate Medicine and Health Sciences Admission Test in July and will find out this month if she has progressed to the interview stage.
She hopes to study medicine at the University of Newcastle. If she isn’t offered a place, she’ll spend next year working as an au pair in Europe before returning and trying again, either for medicine or a bridging degree like biomedical science.
“I love anatomy and the human body and want to make an impact in the world,” she said.
“I want to go to third world countries and help out.”
Natalia urged other young people facing difficulties to not give up.
“Try and find a place for yourself and get out of the situation where you’re being held down,” she said.
“As long as you’re in the situation where things are negative and you’re getting hurt, you’ll get stuck in that feeling and start hanging out with the wrong people. You may feel worthless, that no-one wants you and that you can’t beat the way they make you feel.
“But you will find happiness and succeed if you put your mind to it.”
Half the funds raised at the November 2 Bean Counters Ball – a Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand and CPA Australia initiative – will go to Samaritans Student Accommodation.