"I can’t imagine not having had this amazing experience."

“If you have an opportunity to do something like this, make it a priority because it could prove more worthwhile than anything else you’re doing.”

Jacinta Whitehouse, 27, was already stretched for time when she signed up for a McCusker Centre internship and admits she was worried about fitting everything in.

“But then something shifted,” she says, “and now I can’t imagine not having had this amazing experience. It’s literally changed my life. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done.”

Indeed, Jacinta’s three months at Challis Primary School – a school in Armadale that struggles with low daily attendance – have led her to change her entire career focus from commerce to social work.

“I’m in my final year of a Bachelor of Commerce majoring in accounting and marketing and now I’m going to apply to do a Master of Social Work next year,” Jacinta says. “It’s something I never would have contemplated until working at Challis.”

Jacinta was entrusted to devise a communication/marketing strategy to increase the attendance of children who irregularly attend school. To do so, she needed to first investigate the root causes of the problem.

“It was like being thrown in the deep end, but I immediately loved working in a school environment and felt very much supported in what I was doing,” Jacinta says.

“You need a lot of market research to develop a good strategy so I held a number of focus groups among parents at the school and learnt a great deal through the process.

“A lot of parents had actually been wanting the opportunity to talk about issues that have been building up for them. Some of them knew no other families in the area and therefore had no support, so if one of their children was sick, or they themselves were sick, they all stayed home.

“For others, they were struggling to manage their children’s separation anxiety. There were lots of common themes and messages – lots of things to work on.”

Jacinta says while the enormity of the task sometimes dawned on her, it did not diminish her confidence that what she was doing would ultimately make a difference.

“Missing school really impacts on a child’s educational experience,” she says. “If a child misses a day each fortnight, they’ve have missed an entire year of school by Year 9. If they miss a day each week, they’ll miss an entire year by Year 4. So regular school attendance is crucial. “This is such a big project but also so important that I knew I had to at least try. And that’s what an internship like this really teaches you – that any small step in the right direction makes a positive impact. You can open a door that someone else can walk through and continue the good work.”

Based on her research, Jacinta recommended a parent buddy system be put in place that will ultimately lead to the formation of grassroots networks within the school community. She also developed a series of infographics that more clearly communicate the impacts of poor school attendance.

“It’s great to learn all these things at uni but totally different when you put them into practice,” Jacinta says. “My mind was really bent and stretched by this experience. I was scared at times but that made me more determined to figure it out.

“And through it all I realised that working with children is perfectly aligned with my personality and values. That’s the age where you can make a real difference in people’s lives; it’s when a lot of bad conditioning can occur without help and support.”

Jacinta says she highly recommends McCusker Centre internships to other young people. “If you have an opportunity to do something like this, make it a priority because it could prove more worthwhile than anything else you’re doing – it certainly was for me.”