Boarders overcoming borders

May 12 marks Do It for Dolly Day, coming a month after the West Australian Commissioner for Children and Young People published a report encouraging schools and families to provide a safe space for young people to talk about their struggles.

Dolly’s Dream was created in memory of Amy Jayne “Dolly” Everett, a Northern Territory girl who took her life after suffering physical and online bullying from school peers.

Dolly was 14-years-old when she took her life. Photo: ABC.

Five years after the creation of Dolly’s Dream, the annual WA Joint Standing Committee on the Commissioner for Children and Young People report urges schools and parents to provide more support for adolescents’ mental wellbeing.

The report detailed struggles children face in moving from primary to secondary education and states more needs to be done at both a government and ground level to provide support for the change.

It also draws on outcomes from the 2021 Speaking Out survey, which says girls had a harder time making the transition from primary to secondary compared to boys.

Speaking Out Survey Infographic. Photo: Olivia Ford.

Dolly, who was the face of Akubra as a child, originated from Katherine in the Northern Territory and attended boarding school in Queensland.

Despite the long list of figures in the Speak Out Survey and Commissioner for Children and Young People’s report, not much is said about kids who leave their home life for boarding school and how that potentially adds to emotional stress.

To many rural people Dolly’s Dream has been an important reminder to check up on their mates, with boarding schools such as St Hilda’s Anglican School in Perth taking part in the fundraising events for the cause.

Head Boarder Charlotte Isbister says St Hilda’s has held free dress days for gold coin donations, sausage sizzles, and will be hosting a stall in the school’s upcoming Bizarre, where the money earnt will go to Dolly’s Dream.

Miss Isbister says she knows many girls who struggle with boarding because they are no longer with their families.

“It’s hard, you are used to spending your every day with them.”

She says the initiative is even more important because of the rural focus Dolly’s Dream has.

Charlotte Isbister says Dolly’s Dream is important to many boarders.

Dolly’s Dream has been important for many rural Australians who come from areas where stigma still exists, and mental health services are under-resourced and understaffed.

Catherine Ponton, a pastoralist from Boogardie station near Mount Magnet, says mental awareness is especially important in the country.

Catherine, Connor, Gerard, Rhys, Anthony, Trish & Janet Jones. Photo: Provided.

Catherine put all four of her boys through boarding school, with the youngest graduating in 2017. She says while most of the boys found their feet in the boarding house, there was still a great deal of anxiety about sending them away.

“It’s strange, letting go of your child at the age of 12.

“There would be those evenings when the phone would ring, and you would think, oh no… what’s wrong.”

Catherine says it was difficult when the boys were going through rough patches, were in trouble, or were injured because she couldn’t be there for them.

“They’d ring and go ‘oh my god Mum, I’ve got this assignment to do, and I’ve got so much to do.’ And I dealt with that from 600 kilometres away.”

She says a large deal of stress came from not knowing how they were going.

“You hope your kid is being well fed, you hope the people there love them. Because you do, and you don’t want them to suffer.”

Catherine Ponton

She says discussion and resources for mental health were not as common when her first son began boarding in 2007, while there were councillors around mental health was often not discussed.

Boarders deal with the pressures of leaving home, along with starting high school. Photo: Olivia Ford.

Another parent, Kate McCreery from the Central Wheatbelt, has just sent his eldest son, Tyler, to boarding school this year.

She says it has been a rocky experience but they have been lucky and have been provided with a good programme that eased Tyler into boarding life.

The program included a handful of sleepovers at the boarding school to help new kids get used to the boarding school.

Kate says the boarding staff were great in helping her son adjust but there is still an emotional distance when staff don’t fully understand the children.

“You’re still eleven years old, moving away from Mum and Dad, expected to be largely self-sufficient in emotional needs.”

She says more boarding schools would benefit from having similar programs to ease new students into the lifestyle.