Redland City Mayor launches thirty community heroes
On a quiet street in Capalaba two brothers slept in their car.
They had nowhere else to go.
Their mother had died and their father had committed suicide.
Their story landed, as those kinds of stories do, on a young Karen Williams’ desk.
She was a new Redland City Councillor, she wanted nothing more than to help the boys find somewhere to live.
“I went to all the places where I thought I could get them assistance,” she recalls.
“ … and guess what they were all full and it was at that point I realised …. I can’t solve everything, certainly not at a local government level.”
“It was an eye opener – you get elected and you think you can do everything and clearly you can’t and that’s where I started to develop our partnerships.
“If I was to give advice, it would be you can never underestimate the power of friendships and relationships.”
The daughter of parents, who had fled to Australia following the devastation of World War II, Williams came to office with a resilience grown from her family’s fight for survival and her mother’s steely refusal to never take no for an answer.
Williams wanted those boys to have somewhere to go and she found them somewhere.
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A phone call to BoysTown provided council with a building where they could run a mentorship program but they still needed a place to put it.
“I worked with my colleagues in council – we moved mountains. We had a week and we moved the building, of course there were people in that local area who didn’t like it,” she recalls.
The fight, the mudslinging and the journey to build the mentorship program – that went on to create job opportunities for countless young people – was possibly the making of Williams.
If she had rose-coloured glasses before, they were soon gone.
“They spread rumours about me. They said I was supporting drug users having half way houses … it was the furtherest thing from what this was going to be,” she says.
What happened next, even now, still deeply affects her.
“I was new to the game and yeah it broke my heart (the things people said) because all I wanted to do was make sure young people in this city … I want them to have an experience in the place that I grew up that was so good to me because if you can change one child’s life sometimes you can change the world.”
Something her parents, (her father was Polish and her mother German) did in coming to Australia, working hard, instilling a sense of intregity in their children and a strong understanding of who they were, where they came from and what they believed.
“We didn’t have a cosy Brady Bunch family – we had our challenges, certainly my mother’s life was impacted by her not so great father,” she says.
“ …. but that was another element of wanting people to be safe in Redlands and I always get disappointed when I know people are missing out on that.”
Her commitment to getting the mentorship program up and running was testimony to not letting anyone miss out.
In the end, she says, “we had volunteers from all over the community – you name it they came”.
“It became viral across the city. There were these people that understood young people and actually just turned their ears on, that’s all they did turned their ears on and these kids spoke.”
“The transformation of some of these kids who were, some of them, heading down a path of potentially no return and to have someone in their lives and actually caring about them ….. that is the power of the networks, the people, the community coming together, despite the fact we had to face such criticism and such ugly commentary.”
Each of those experiences, and there have been many she says, have helped her to learn to listen to the voices of good people, to the “people who care about the future of the city as opposed to the people who are just concerned about their own agenda, their own backyard or have had some sad life so they attack whoever gets in your way.”
It is in talking about adversity and those moments where she has witnessed first hand the good things that can be done, that you can hear the pride and joy in Williams’ voice.
“If you think I was blown away by this young person and his complete change of direction well the pride that was instilled in John Shelley (the mentor) – he stood up and he cried and I cried with him because he just felt he had put his fingerprints, positive fingerprints on this young life that could have gone who knows where …. so those small wins are the fuel for me.”
Williams’ is Redlands Coast through and through.
Her memories are of staying in island shacks with kerosene fridges with just her Mum, sitting out on the dunes at night counting stars with ‘cousins’ and swinging from ropes over Tingalpa Creek with her brothers.
A time when growing up in the Redlands, it was the world and it took hours on a bus to go anywhere.
Now, while Williams is the first to point out the vast demographic changes, she still believes it is the power of community and the idyllic coastline that will enchant and if she has her way, drive a whole new generation of people and tourists to the region.
But it’s not just about growing the city.
“I can go to work and respond and sign the correspondence and drive policy and make sure the organisation is financially stable – really, really important things to do but you only get one opportunity to have a privileged position like mine and as much as I want to leave the organisation in a really good position I feel I’ve got a responsibility to do more than that –
you have an opportunity that nobody else has to make it better.”
For Williams, fostering change and seeing opportunity for those who have none, is the icing on the cake.
“If you don’t ice the cake when you are in the role, the cake’s eaten and gone and that opportunity is lost.”
And she’s not one to lose an opportunity.
“My job and I think the job of any elected representative is to try to leave any of these parts of your world in a better place then when you first took on the challenge,” she says.
“We’re bigger than Toowoomba, our coastline is bigger than any other LGA (Local Government Authority) pretty much because we have all the islands, we deserve recognition so our challenges can be turned into opportunities.”
“I do what any human being would do who loves the place they were born – just try to make it better.”
Williams has come a long way from the shy child who didn’t learn to step into her own potential until a teacher in high school grew her courage and helped her to find her way.
Then Rotary stepped in with an exchange to the United States and her whole world changed.
“Whenever you make a progressive move there is always someone who wants to drag you back,” she said.
“The hardest decisions are the ones that will have the lasting legacies, the bigger the decision the bigger the push back.”
“Redlands Coast is a big place and there’s lots of things happening, lots of challenges – keeping our young people here, providing jobs, we are losing jobs on our islands, our beautiful coastlines need to be maintained and funded, southern Moreton Bay islands have some of the highest levels of unemployment in the State and yet they are magic places.”
“The world isn’t a perfect place but if you can get to your own level of perfect by helping other people and they pay it forward you’ve achieved something.”