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Meet The Smith Family heroes working to break the poverty cycle in Australia

With their Learning for Life program, The Smith Family changes lives across multiple generations. We meet some of the amazing people helping others achieve their dreams.

By Tiffany Dunk
Every second Tuesday afternoon, Toni Thomas eagerly heads off to her favourite place in the world, a local Learning Club.
It's here she volunteers to work with a group of young and eager kids who – thanks to a wide-ranging program from The Smith Family – are getting a helping hand with both their educational and social needs.
The Club runs every school day, providing kids in need with a much-welcomed afternoon tea, plus a safe space to do their homework where help is at hand should they run into any problems.
This is just one aspect of The Smith Family's Learning for Life sponsorship program, an initiative aimed at making sure that kids in poverty can keep up with their peers when it comes to education.
And it's proven to be a vital step in breaking the cycle of disadvantage for many families in need.
Toni, 75, has been volunteering for six years now and, she tells The Australian Women's Weekly, watching the changes the program has wrought in the children has given her more joy than she ever anticipated.
"There were children who couldn't read and are now confident," she says.
"One of our little girls last year was having an awful lot of trouble with her maths and now it's so good."
"Plus, it's helping their social abilities. They are friendlier, they learn to get on better and they are becoming more confident, not just in their work but in themselves.
"Sometimes I come here and I've been annoyed or cranky and that just drops away. Because to see the kids improve and be happy with what they are doing and with themselves is what it's all about.
"Fancy us having 1.2 million children living in disadvantage. In my six years I have seen what education does for these children – they are going on to university, TAFE, all these things."
Learning club volunteerToni Thomas with participants Nikyah, Koriee and Xzavier. Image: Rob Swan
Certainly that's what Belinda, a childcare worker and single mum of four, hopes will happen for her family.
Her three eldest children Xzavier, nine, Nikyah, eight, and Koriee, five, (Belinda welcomed her fourth, a daughter, 18 weeks ago) have all benefited from their involvement in the program.
For Xzavier especially it has proved a lifeline.
With dyslexia as well as an underlying eye problem and colour vision deficiency, when he joined the Learning Club in 2017 he was lagging far behind his classmates.
Now, says Belinda, "he can look at words, sound out words he couldn't before. Having the support of the Learning Club – and The Smith Family as a whole, who have helped out with his glasses, school uniforms and things like that – has helped Xzavier to get where he is today."
Belinda with her kids. She says they are now happier than ever thanks to the program. Image: Rob Swan
All three kids have become happier and more confident since accessing the benefits from The Smith Family, Belinda adds.
And it's not just because of the Learning Club.
There are many ongoing benefits for children on a Learning for Life scholarship.
As well as arming them with the school essentials that are crucial to help a child fit in – including school excursions and extras – there are out-of-school learning and mentoring programs to support them through primary school, high school, tertiary education and beyond.
In her final year of primary school, Jessica Latimer, now 21, received her own scholarship.
Today, she's completing an honours degree, having studied science and majoring in zoology at the University of Queensland.
"This course wouldn't have been an option without The Smith Family," Jessica says.
"They've helped me in so many ways."
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Those ways came in the form of payment for extracurricular activities, mentorships, training and money saving programs.
It allowed her to take part in an exchange program in Canada – and now she's heading back there as a research assistant before starting a PhD.
"The Smith Family have given me a lot more confidence and that's translated into taking every opportunity that comes my way, even if it's scary," she says with a smile.
"I was a very shy kid so it wasn't like I was about to put myself out there, I needed that extra boost."
To learn more about Learning for Life and to become a sponsor, head to The Smith Family website.
Watch Belinda's story on our TV special, Easter with The Australian Women's Weekly, 7:30PM Friday 3rd April 2020.
Read many more feel-good stories in the April issue of The Australian Women's Weekly, on sale now.
This feature was produced before the COVID-19 pandemic saw schools and Learning Clubs shut down. At this time The Smith Family are asking Australians to consider taking up a sponsorship so that children in need can continue to meet their educational needs from the home school room. To learn more about Learning for Life and to become a sponsor head to The Smith Family website.

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