Catherine Clarke never got the chance to be a regular teenager.
At age 15, she was a kind of mother to her younger brother Jonothan, who’s autistic.
She was also doing all the cooking, cleaning and shopping for her household. Her mum had a physical disability and her dad spent his nights working to support the family, his days as a carer, and sleep came when it fit in.
That left Catherine to do everything else.
On top of all that, for three years the family essentially lived in a caravan on another family member’s property because they couldn’t afford to pay the rent on their western Sydney home.
Nine years later, Catherine’s life couldn’t be more different. She’s engaged to her childhood sweetheart, has completed a hospitality degree at university and holds down a full-time job at Moorebank Sports club.
She’s saved enough money to buy a car and a parcel of land at Katoomba where – one day – she wants to build her dream home.
It’s a life she never could have dreamed of as a teenager, and it was her “big sister” Diala Barsoum who opened her eyes to the possibilities life could bring.
“I didn’t get out much,” she tells me.
“I didn’t get to connect with other people so meeting Diala it’s brought a whole new perspective on life. There’s a lot more out there than I thought.”
Catherine and Diala aren’t sisters in the traditional sense of the word.
They met nine years ago through the SISTER2sister program. It pairs teenagers from underprivileged backgrounds with “big sister” mentors.
Diala had a regular upbringing, with parents who encouraged her to study, and she’s now a successful business woman.
She says of Catherine, “I just remember her being so mature for her age and just taking everything on and just dealing with it.”
Jessica Brown is the woman behind the program – which has now been running for 14 years.
She founded the Life Changing Experiences Foundation in 2003 because as a music teacher she saw how the cycle of poverty, abuse and neglect would often stop girls from underprivileged backgrounds from reaching their full potential.
By the end of this year, her foundation will have helped 500 girls – mostly from western Sydney – achieve things they never thought possible.
“Some of the girls make positive choices and changes straight away and some take a little bit longer but we see some incredible success stories coming through where girls are the first person in their family to hold down a job, the first person to go to university,” she said. (link to their website here:)
Many of the women paired together in the year-long program are still in touch years later – like Diala and Catherine.
In the nine years since they met, Diala has provided advice and mentoring, and watched Catherine flourish.
“I’m just really proud,” she says. “I do feel like a big sister.”