On 8 August, we celebrate the Feast Day of St Mary of the Cross MacKillop, Australia’s first saint. One of St Mary MacKillop’s famous quotes, ‘Never see a need without doing something about it’ is at the heart of MacKillop Family Services, a not-for-profit organisation with its origins in Melbourne and Geelong, which now serves thousands of children and families in need across Australia.

MacKillop Family Services (‘MacKillop’) began in 1997, but its origins date back to 1854, when the Sisters of St Joseph, the Sisters of Mercy and the Christian Brothers began their work in Australia. Together, the founders—Mary MacKillop, Catherine McAuley and Edmund Rice—established homes for children who were orphaned, destitute or neglected, and for families in need of care and support. Over the years, these original models of institutional care have evolved into residential care, foster care and family support services, all of which are central to the mission of service provided by MacKillop today.

Speaking about MacKillop, and the legacy of its three founders, chief executive officer Dr Robyn Miller says, ‘Our core values are justice, hope, collaboration, compassion and respect, and the three founders absolutely worked from that premise.

‘They were imbued with and embodied this spirit of Catholic Social Teaching: solidarity with the poor, deep respect for every human life and the dignity of all. They were there for the children, to listen deeply to what they were saying and not saying. That sense, I think, is something that I translate into modern language in terms of human rights. I say to all of our staff today, you are human rights workers just like our founders. I like to think that we’re carrying on that same spirit and that same passion for social justice.’

Reflecting on St Mary of the Cross MacKillop in particular, Robyn says, ‘Mary MacKillop’s life and spirit continue to inspire our teams and staff. There’s a really strong ethos around her deep humility, her kindness and her generosity of spirit to reach out to those most in need.

‘At its core, MacKillop is a large-hearted agency that provides practical help for marginalised children and families when times are tough,’ she says. ‘And that’s what the three founders were on about. It’s about equipping families and children with the skills, with the love and with the supports they need so that they can have those opportunities to grow and develop, and to flourish.

Robyn characterises the MacKillop ethos as one that seeks to shower kids and families with love:

We work with people in the worst of times, and the delight in the work is helping to change that, helping people to move through to better times and to live the life they deserve.’

Nationally, MacKillop employs 1760 staff to provide practical assistance in a range of ways that address the ‘whole family situation’, not just part of it. Its early intervention programs support 8,200 families across Australia so that parents can provide safe and nurturing homes for their children. For those children and young people who have experienced abuse or neglect and no longer engage in mainstream schools, MacKillop’s education services include specialist schools, outreach tutoring and homework programs. These programs support over 500 young people nationally to reconnect with learning and education.

And for children temporarily unable to live at home, MacKillop manages foster care and residential care homes, as well as homelessness support services. They currently support almost 2,000 children and young people (aged 0–18) in foster care, residential care and youth homelessness services.

‘There’s nothing more fundamentally painful than having nowhere to live and nowhere where you really belong,’ says Robyn, ‘So, it’s that deep sense of welcome and large heartedness that Mary McKillop personified that we try to embed in all of our services.’

Robyn says that while all of MacKillop’s services are needed, they are in ‘desperate need’ of more foster carers. ‘We just can’t keep up with demand,’ she says. Nationally, MacKillop has 1,000 foster carers who provide care to over 500 children and young people on any given night. The carers are all volunteers, receiving an allowance to help care for the child or children in their care.

‘We work with foster carers from all walks of life. They’re married, single, working full time, or at home. They don’t have to be experts in children though they have to have a love for children and a willingness to generously nurture them,’ says Robyn.

MacKillop runs information sessions and training for its foster carers and supports them through the whole process. The staff work as a team around the child and ideally are trying to get that child home to their birth family or to independent living. When that can’t happen, there are some carers who become the permanent carers for that child, and occasionally even adopt.

‘Mary MacKillop was very good at drawing out the goodwill in the community, which is something we continue to do today,’ says Robyn. They also continue to take inspiration from Mary MacKillop’s example of ‘going out’ to visit children and families.

‘Mary MacKillop set up fostering programs 150 years ago, and she’d set out in a carriage, travelling to the farms where the children were fostered,’ says Robyn. ‘Like Mary MacKillop, we don’t just put children in foster care and that’s it. All of our leadership team and our case workers are out there supporting the carers and making sure the children are safe and developing well. I’ve just been out these past couple of days visiting families and residential homes in Hamilton, Warrnambool and Geelong.’

MacKillop has 85 residential homes across Australia, where up to four young people can live together with rostered, paid staff. There are about 180 young people in residential care at any one time across Victoria and NSW. ‘Running residential care for young people is very demanding and very complex,’ says Robyn. ‘There has often been drugs, violence and neglect in the background, and they’ve all come through the court system.

‘So, we’ve kept that same passion for doing the most challenging work and have maintained that same commitment to the rights of young people as our founders, though how we do it these days is quite different.’ Much of MacKillop’s work is trauma-informed, and culturally sensitive. The organisation is grounded in the Sanctuary Model, which ensures its staff are equipped to manage the impact of the work.

‘The Sanctuary model is about every staff member having their own care plan and safety plan,’ says Robyn. ‘If they start to feel overwhelmed, how are they going to self-regulate? We’re no good in helping others if we’re not calm and thinking clearly ourselves. So that’s something we’ve put in place across all of our staff, whether they’re in finance, IT or front-line service delivery.’

Robyn Miller

Robyn has been CEO at MacKillop since 2016, and in that time, the organisation has grown fourfold. It’s not ‘growth for growth’s sake’ she says. Rather, the organisation has responded to people’s needs, just as Mary MacKillop did in her time.

‘We run family services in Victoria, New South Wales, the ACT, Western Australia and the Northern Territory. We have programs and services in every area of Melbourne and have residential homes all over Victoria. And through the MacKillop Institute, we have programs and training for the broader sector.’

Through the institute, MacKillop is running a program called Relate, working with 70 mainstream schools to be more trauma-informed so that they can better respond to young people with behavioural difficulties. And through MacKillop’s education services, three specialist schools have been established in Caulfield, Maidstone and Geelong (with plans for Sunbury and Sydney in the works), where young people excluded from mainstream schools due to suspension can find a place of welcome and support.

‘Mary McKillop had a particular love for children and a deep love for their families,’ says Robyn.

She had a passion for children where life hadn’t been fair, and a passion for education. And today, if you look at the amount of young people and families we serve, and how we intervene now, we’ve maintained these core values of our founders.

‘All three founders had a passion for the rights of families and seeing education as a way to empower them for the future. It wasn’t a welfare model. It was actually all about helping them to get an education, so they could get a good job and be independent and have dignity. This remains core to who we are.’

MacKillop is grateful for the support received by many to fulfil its mission in serving families and children. ‘We cannot do our work without the generous financial support of the Catholic community,’ says Robyn. ‘Many of our most innovative, impactful programs, such as our therapy dog program called Paw Pals, are funded solely by the support of individuals who share our passion for the inspirational example set by Mary MacKillop. We are deeply grateful.’