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International Women’s Day 2023 #embracingequity with Susan Barton AM, founder of the Lighthouse Foundation

On this International Women's Day, we have the privilege to speak with Susan Barton AM, the founder of Lighthouse Foundation, an Australian charitable organisation that provides support and accommodation for homeless and at risk children. 

Susan's passion and commitment to empowerment has made a significant impact on the lives of over 1000 young people. So today, we celebrate her work and the achievements.

1. Where did the idea for the Lighthouse Foundation begin?

Fundamentally, it came from my unshakeable belief that we cannot allow children to suffer, to be without nurturing care and love, on our watch. I believed this when I established the Lighthouse Foundation back in 1991, and I believe it today. 

I travelled to Sri Lanka in the 1980s to deliver donations to an orphanage and I was horrified by the suffering, the illness, the neglect these children and babies were experiencing. When I returned to Australia I made it my mission to put a stop to this, to work as hard as I possibly could to ensure than no child would experience homelessness and suffering. Fortunately, I met generous patrons who were just as passionate and committed as me, and they helped me build Lighthouse. Many of them are still part of the Lighthouse family to this day.

2. You have helped over 1000 teenagers break the cycle of homelessness through placements in Lighthouse Homes. What is the mission of these homes?

For more than 30 years, Lighthouse has specialised in looking after young people who have experienced neglect and abuse. The transitions from childhood to youth, youth to adulthood, are challenging times for any young person, but it’s much more difficult without family support and with additional hurdles like poor mental health, intellectual and physical disabilities, developmental delays and the other factors that typically accompany homelessness.

In view of this, when Lighthouse steps in to help these young people, we don’t just provide a roof over their head – we also provide the nurturing care that they need. We provide nurturing, family-style homes but we also provide community committees that surround each home to connect our young people to their community and help them access employment, mentoring and other services. We have a successful foster care program and have recently added Kinship Care and Family Support to our service offerings. In 2022 we launched the Community Connect program – a supportive outreach service that helps young people at risk of homelessness build positive relationships and connections in their communities, and to maintain, or find safe and sustainable housing.

There is empirical evidence from a range of disciplines to demonstrate that if young people are offered a safe physical environment, with adult role models and a range of clinical and occupational services they can rebuild their self-identify and learn new ways of trusting and relating to others. We do not pathologise our young people – i.e. we do not view or treat their behaviour as medically or psychologically abnormal. Rather, in the absence of the usual source of protection from life’s traumas – the family unit - we provide that protection. The homes are staffed by trained therapeutic carers who provide very specific, trauma-informed care.

3. The theme of International Women’s Day this year is #embraceequity. What work does the Lighthouse Foundation do for women at risk who pass through your doors to get them back on track? 

Lighthouse’s Young Women’s Freedom Program began in 2018 in response to the urgent need to provide safe homes and therapeutic care to young women escaping (or at risk of) early/forced marriage or sexual slavery, and other forms of gender-based violence. Therapeutic care is provided in Lighthouse-run, shared homes, combined with wraparound support to these young women, including establishing networks within their communities, counselling and training. 

Past trauma is addressed through a range of therapeutic practices and the gradual establishment of new daily routines. Self-confidence is developed through building new friendships within the Lighthouse community. Each young woman is supported to take greater personal responsibility in her relationships, her home and her community. 

These vulnerable young women and girls are likely to have been denied access to education or autonomy over their lives. The program focuses on providing a private and secure home where they can regain agency over their lives. For many, improving their English language skills is a key goal, and they are supported to enrol in English language studies and tutoring. Cultural connection is encouraged through support for healthy cultural practices, holidays and celebrations.

The Kip&Co team outside the Lighthouse Foundation with Partnerships Manager, Nathalie.

4. Are you able to share an example of the impact the Lighthouse Foundation has had on one of your residents?

There are literally hundreds of examples we could share. But given our theme is International Women’s Day, perhaps I can talk about a young woman from our Young Women’s Freedom Program. Our referrals to this program come directly from the Australian Federal Police (AFP), Australian Red Cross and hospitals. The AFP commented in June 2019 that ‘Lighthouse has enabled these young people – some of whom are just children – to live in a safe, controlled environment where they can recover and prosper… [it is] transforming young people’s lives and changing the way society is able to support young victims of crime’.

Sahar was referred to us by the AFP several years ago. From the moment she arrived she noticed individual attention and care provided by staff as well as the comradery of the other young women in the Lighthouse program. With support from her carers, Sahar was able to enrol in full time studies at an education provider for young people with a migrant background. She attended a TAFE college where she studied English, and participated in a community program teaching hospitality skills to disadvantaged young people. After two years at Lighthouse, Sahar transitioned out of Lighthouse’s care into a more independent living arrangement. Sahar remains in close contact with the other young women in the Young Women’s Freedom Program and visits regularly. The step towards independence is significant for Sahar and notwithstanding the uncertainty, her optimism and resilience are striking, ‘I can see my future is bright… at the moment, I’m busy with the studies, and then let’s see what happens in the future.

5. Kip&Co have been a partner of the Lighthouse Foundation for the last 5 years putting colourful sheets on beds in the Lighthouse Homes. Can you share the impact this has had on creating a positive living space for the residents.

Lighthouse homes are designed to look and feel like typical family homes. From the moment our young people enter, they feel welcome and safe. The space is authentic and is a genuine reflection of the carers and young people who live there. Photo frames adorn the walls, fridges are covered in notes, drawings and certificates, and Kip&Co’s beautiful sheets are spread on the beds. Gifts like these show our young people that they are important, that their comfort matters. Our homes evoke a sense of comfort for our young people with such beautiful, personal furnishings - a safe and loving space for them to begin their healing journey

The Kip&Co team helping pack welcome bags for young people who visit the Lighthouse Foundation. 

6. How can the Kip&Co community support the Lighthouse Foundation? 

We deeply value the donations we receive from Kip&Co, and your genuine, deep connection to our work. We are always looking for new Lighthouse Keepers – special supporters who give a donation every month to keep the lights burning brightly in our homes. Workplace giving is a simple and effective way to donate to Lighthouse through automated payroll deductions. We are also currently running a raffle to raise funds for Lighthouse program. 

And finally, we are always looking for new volunteers to join the Lighthouse family. Volunteers have been a key part of the fabric of Lighthouse throughout our history. As mentioned previously, all of our homes are supported by Community Committees who provide a circle of support around the young people in that home. We would warmly welcome new committee members from among the Kip&Co community.

The Lighthouse Foundation raffle on now. With every ticket purchase Lighthouse can continue to positively change young lives. Learn more here