By Andrea Louise Thomas Photos Yanni
Stephanie Exton, CEO of charitable organisation Mornington Peninsula Foundation (MPF), quietly goes about working with donors and community partners using a model of place-based philanthropy to bring positive change to people’s lives. MPF funds local initiatives through direct relationships in support of its mission to break the cycle of economic disadvantage on the Peninsula.
“When barriers to support systems still exist as evidenced by the persistent levels of disadvantage in particular areas of the Peninsula, we need to explore different approaches and progressive philanthropy gives us the opportunity to do that,” she says. This is why MPF takes a different approach.
“Funding is a significant part of the work, but really getting to know people through deep listening and having fluid timelines enables the flow of information that results in high impact funding. When people are part of the design of the solution, they own it and drive it. It’s about working with people, not doing to them,” she says.
Stephanie takes MPF donors to meet the people they are supporting so they understand each other. She wants to see echelons crossed and new conversations started. As she explains, “We all have needs and something to give. It’s about opening doors and having conversations that can benefit all parties. Giving is actually our secret weapon for healing. When people give, they’re kinder to one another. It builds respect which benefits whole communities.”
Since MPF started in 2017, improving literacy levels has been identified as a key focus for the educators with which MPF partners. “Without literacy there are insurmountable barriers to engagement in social and economic life. Isolation compounds.
While the cycle of advantage spirals up for some, it spirals down for others,” she says.
MPF’s initial school program was in response to low oral literacy levels flagged to Stephanie by pre-school and primary school teachers. MPF funded a program providing speech therapists in kinder and primary school classrooms because oral language is the prerequisite to literacy. This grew into No Limits, a four-year initiative with seven preschools and primary schools, partnering with local speech therapy provider, Peninsula Speech Plus.
Phase two of No Limits is underway with Peninsula pre and primary schools transitioning to the science of reading, an evidence-based model of teaching literacy using phonics and sequential instruction. It became clear that having speech therapists in schools wasn’t a sustainable long-term solution, but changing the teaching methods was, and it provides the same improved results.
Some Peninsula secondary school principals reported that 70% of their students were arriving to Year 7 far below expected literacy levels. Clearly something wasn’t working in primary school. Stephanie says, “In primary school, children need direct, explicit, sequential instruction in how to learn, especially in reading.”
While the speech and oral language work is happening in the early years, MPF is also responding to needs of schools and young people in the upper years. They’re working closely with local secondary colleges and music is proving to be a gateway to change.
Cheryl Beattie, musician and owner of The Music Industry, a music school in Rosebud, has great success with her students. She builds connections with them and is also very connected with the local community.
Cheryl found a high level of disengagement amongst local youth. Often, they didn’t want to go to school. They lacked confidence and a sense of purpose. She had an idea and went to Stephanie to discuss it.
Cheryl’s thinking was that, if those young people could learn music and find success, they might use that successful experience to re-engage in mainstream learning. With generous donor support, MPF now funds In Tune WithU which provides expert music tuition, healthy food, and mental health support for participants who otherwise couldn’t afford music lessons.
The program was such a success that it expanded to a second night and has an extensive waiting list. What Cheryl and Stephanie found was that these young people were dealing with significant challenges in their lives at home and in school. Their lessons were about more than music; they were therapy.
An accomplished cellist, Stephanie is passionate about the power of music. At 10, her mother took her to an orchestral concert. She fell in love with the cello. A philanthropic scholarship helped her learn the instrument which she still plays today.
“By being aware of other people’s circumstances, listening without pity, being inclusive and understanding that everyone can learn from each other, we can all be part of the change. We are all human. Most people didn’t get to where they are without help,” she says.