PERTH Wildcats legend Ricky Grace has been appointed a Member of the Order of Australia.
The Girls Academy founder received the accolade for significant service to the indigenous community of WA.
He started working with young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people while playing for the Wildcats, heading out to Hermannsburg in the Northern Territory for two weeks at the end of each season.
“I noticed I had an instant connection,” he said.
“I could keep their attention span and get them to listen. When you’re at that age, you listen to certain people, some people you don’t. I can testify to that with my own kids.”
Back in Perth, Noongar elders approached Grace about a possible collaboration – he learned girls were not getting the same money invested into programs for them as boys, and basketball was their favourite sport.
“I said, well basketball’s my favourite sport too – but I have a masters degree in education, so if we’re going to do a program, it has to be about education first,” he said.
“That’s how my mum raised me. Education first, then sport.”
In 2004, Girls Academy was born, the flagship program of Grace’s Role Models and Leaders Australia.
The in-school mentoring program for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander girls spread from WA to the Northern Territory, New South Wales and Queensland, and in 2019 is installed at 45 sites and reaches 2700 students.
The programs are community-led, with local elders, parents, school staff and Girls Academy staff forming an advisory committee to tailor each school’s approach.
“The program in Bunbury looks different to the program in Tamworth. In one place it might be cyber bullying that’s an issue, in another it might be family feuding,” Grace said.
“In another, it might be so hot and the girls don’t have a pair of shoes, so they need shoes to get to school. We identify those barriers and help eliminate them.”
Eighty per cent of staff are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and the mentors are dedicated to showing girls the options open to them.
“I grew up in a rough neighbourhood in Dallas, and there was a time in my life where I could have gone either way, but I had a mentor who helped me realise my potential,” Grace said.
“It’s exciting to see the girls thrive when they’re supported, and to see them believe in themselves as much as we believe in them. To see their resilience, and their self-esteem just shoot up out of the roof.”
A survey of 2018 Girls Academy graduates found 82 per cent are now in further study, employment or both.
Grace said the eventual aim was for the program to not be needed, but until then, he wanted to see every school with at least 50 Aboriginal girls home to a program like Girls Academy.
The Olympian said he missed the days of working on the ground, seeing those “lightbulb moments” when a young person started to believe in themselves.
But while he may not be out in the field, the stories work their way back to the chief executive in West Perth, and he watches the program spread, with an ex-student now working in the office, ex-students working for Girls Academy locations, and girls saying they aspire to mentor.
“One said she wanted my job. I said look, the seat is yours,” Grace said.
“I’m keeping it warm for you.”