Scientists have spent a lifetime and maybe a google of dollars discovering the importance of eating breakfast. Ian Steel simply fed a troubled kid and looked at the world through his eyes.
It was then that he saw hope behind the sadness, and realised that if we all shared the same bowl without prejudice we would live in a better world.
Ian, 50, is the founder of an amazing organisation KickStart for Kids, a not-for-profit group[ that helps schoolchildren achieve positive educational and self esteem outcomes through giving them breakfast and hope in life.
It’s now that you think this only applies to the much maligned northern and southern suburbs with their confronting socio-economic plight, but believe it, his program also covers a need in schools across the Fleurieu Peninsula.
This is not about a blame game or a guilt trek, but our need as a community to also see a different world through these kids’ eyes, and react.
Ian’s incredible journey started in 2008 when he chose to be a mentor for a disadvantaged child; his personal way of giving something back for his happy life; a loving family with wife Georgie, and their children Seb, 15, Olivia, 12, and Sam 10, treasured moments in sport including days in football at Sturt, and success in business.
“I started though mentoring for the SA Education Department working with children who didn’t have any significant adult in their life,” Ian said. “Over a few years I noticed there was this massive behavioural difference between those kids and where my kids went to school, and where I coached junior footy.
“Kids couldn’t concentrate. I found girls sleeping the in backs of cars on their own; high levels of anxiety. They were angry and agitated all the time. They were always late for school, absenteeism was high.
“I did some research and started talking to principals, teachers, plus the kids themselves, and to the guardians or the grandparents. What I found out absolutely horrified me.
“I not only found the reason why they were hungry all the time, but horrifying other issues like 11 year-old boys stealing cars on the weekend and coming to school with needle marks in their arms. There were girls who just wanted to get pregnant like their mum did at 14, and so did her mother. They tried to get pregnant because of the government baby bonus.
“I found little girls sleeping in the backs of cars on their own because they were too scared to go inside their home where they were at risk. Girls aged as young as five doing their own washing.
“Some were so malnourished and so neglected they looked like they came out of a third-world detention camp. Their stomach had shrunk so they were never hungry and didn’t know what it was like to have a proper meal.
“I found kids aged five who didn’t know what the primary colours were; some had never seen a book in their whole life. They didn’t realise there was a story inside. It just rocked my world.
“There were kids eating dog food; please believe me here. I met mums who knew what bins had the freshest food in them at the local shopping centre. And I am not just talking about the northern and southern suburbs.
“I decided to do something about it. I realised I couldn’t take all the kids home and look after them and be their parent. What I could do was make them feel good about their day by having something as simple as breakfast. Make them feel good about themselves, get them to school and help them grow their self esteem.
“Having breakfast gets the kids educated. It enables a child to concentrate, it gets them to school on time and stops the absenteeism. It enables them to learn and in the broader picture to get a job and become a valuable member of our community. We have seen these positive outcomes.”
Ian’s reaction plan started when he went to his local shopping centre at Mitcham and told his story to Baker’s Delight, Foodland, the fruit and veg shop and said they had to help him.
“I filled up the back of my ute with product and went out to this primary school,” Ian recalled. “Instantaneously, the kids turned into normal kids one second after they had filled their stomach. They had lost their high levels of anxiety and they wanted to make friends. They were happy like every other kid should be. Their self esteem grew.
“Obviously, I am talking about extreme cases here where there are no parents as we know it, because of drugs, bipolar, gambling and so on. But there are also so many other parents who, for no fault of their own, are in this situation.
“Costs are rising, mum and or dad go out to work early and can’t feed the child. Electricity bills double so they can’t afford breakfast for the kids. There are a number of reasons, and there is no blame game here.
“Our breakfast programs are inclusive; anyone can go to them at their school. We know we get to the kids who really need it. If we happen to get 20 kids who don’t need it who cares because at least we have made it a fun, social setting; it is important for under-privileged children to inter-act in a more normal environment to help them understand the levels of behaviour they can achieve.
“The problems are not just in the public schools in the northern suburbs as some may want to believe. There are colleges in the program. Look, there are sorts or reasons. Some have a breakfast program where we deliver just fresh fruit. There are different kinds of breakfast programs.”
Ian’s KickStart for Kids program now caters for 300 schools around the state. Each week 550 volunteers serve 40,000 breakfasts.
More than 8000 sandwiches are made – cheese or Vegemite at the Western Hospital and in a kitchen in the northern suburbs predominantly for kids who wouldn’t otherwise have lunch.
“We also supply basic hygiene product, basic clothing… a lot don’t have any shoes, underwear,” Ian said. “I have a mentoring program where 120 authorised volunteers go into schools and work one-on-one with kids.
“We have a reading program where we read to four or five kids because the kids we are talking about don’t get any support at home or have someone reading. Again, they fall behind and behind and behind and they can’t get back where they should be.
“We have Camp KickStart where we go to the real at risk kids during holidays. These kids don’t do anything on holidays; they are at risk at home so we pick them up early in the morning, take them to a site generally a school that we have hired out. We started that last year; the first camp had 40 and then 90, and now we are going to our second site.”
Now here’s the crunch. While the program plays a crucial part in young lives in towns across the Fleurieu Peninsula as much as any other part of the state, the program down here has no volunteers. And Ian is asking for help.
“The program across the Fleurieu involves delivering product to the schools with the program ran by the schools themselves. A school counselor or teacher is there, but we need volunteers to assist. They need to have a DECD (Department for Education and Child Development) check and police security check, which we organise, but they must pay for – it costs $50.
“We also need them to do a reporting of abuse and neglect course, which we run.
“We are already in nearly every school down here… Victor Harbor High runs their own breakfast program with help from the Lions; some schools don’t believe they they need to have a breakfast program which is an insular view.
“Some say we are taking the onus off the parents, but the kids we deal with don’t have parents. We also work with schools in Goolwa, Port Elliot, Strathalbyn, Myponga, Yankalilla and Willunga. Overall, some are public schools and some are private.”
Ian has enjoyed a long family history with our south coast, including living in Port Elliot, where he has a “family retreat”.
“The need is everywhere, particularly in the Fleurieu,” Ian said. “It is amazing how many are homeless down here. A lot of disadvantaged, a lot of hardship; my word.
“It is an epidemic that no one knows about, or wants to know about. I talk to people and make more people aware that this third class of child that’s living out in our suburbs in our regional areas that nobody knows about.
“Country towns take a massive amount of product. As an example, Sanitarium kindly sponsor us with their Weet-Bix supplied free of charge. We get four pallets of Weet-Bix at the start of the year and that normally runs out deep into the second term. We ran out week six of the first term this year.
“The need has never been greater… more product, more clothes and more shoes are going out. More kids are needing mentoring.”
And Ian, who spends at least 60 hours a week on his KickStart for Kids program in between trying to run his building supplies business, needs our help. Along his journey he has been an Australia Day Award finalist, been named Entrepreneur of the Year, and been awarded an OAM.
But as he says, this is all not about him, but the sacrifices of his own family. And it’s about our kids.
If you would like to help Ian’s KickStart for Kids program as a volunteer or would like to make a donation, please email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or M: 0400 005 880.