Hope for Cathy’s Palm Island dream
WHEN Olympic gold medallist Cathy Freeman acted as godmother at the spectacular renaming ceremony of Pacific Dawn at Sydney’s Overseas Passenger Terminal in 2007, she received $30,000 towards the Cathy Freeman Foundation, which was established that year to help disadvantaged indigenous children.
The Renzo Piano-designed 70,000gt ship had been christened Regal Princess by former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher in New York in 1991. It underwent a makeover as Pacific Dawn in Singapore, arriving in Sydney sporting new livery with the stylised sun logo of P&ocruises Australia two days before Freeman gave it its new name.
This was the beginning of a rewarding relationship between Carnival Australia, the parent company of P&O Cruises Australia, and the Cathy Freeman Foundation that continues today.
Ann Sherry, chief executive of Carnival Australia, presented Freeman with another substantial cheque at a gala luncheon on board Pacific Dawn in Sydney to celebrate the first anniversary of its renaming. Carnival Australia helps to support the foundation through its Carnival Cares program, which also raises money for Lifeline Australia and Make-aWish. Its passengers have contributed by being sponsored by family and friends to Walk the Decks, a fundraiser that was rolled out across the fleet; the company has raised about $190,000 for the foundation since 2007.
As Freeman, who lit the flame at the opening ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympics (where she subsequently won the 400m event), says: ‘‘The foundation is a way for me to support others in the same way that people have supported me in my career.’’
Initially, Freeman is working with the community of Palm Island, 65km northeast of Townsville, which has a population of about 4000 — one of the largest indigenous communities in Australia — and a troubled history.
During the 20th century it was used by the Queensland government as a settlement for Aborigines guilty of such infractions as being ‘ ‘ disruptive’’, ‘ ‘ born with mixed blood’’ or ‘‘being pregnant to a white man’’.
Freeman’s maternal greatgrandparents were exiled from their home to Palm Island in 1925 and their granddaughter, Cathy’s mother, was born there in 1939.
The Australian Bureau of Statistics lists Palm Island as the fourth most disadvantaged community in Australia. About 60 per cent of the population is under 20 years old and life expectancy is 50, which is 38 per cent lower than the state average. About 90 per cent of the people are unemployed and four out of five children suffer hearing loss from otitis media infection, which affects their ability to learn and communicate. Truancy rates are as high as 70 per cent, approximately nine out of 10 Year 7 students are unable to read and write at a minimum National Assessment Program — Literacy and Numeracy (NAPLAN) standard and less than one in 10 graduate from secondary school.
Working with key partners, the foundation is addressing some of these issues. Its Early Learning Project prepares children for success in the classroom; it also provides a big incentive for youngsters to attend school and achieve results by rewarding them with sporting goods, including bikes.
It encourages children to participate in sport and recreational activities and gives students who have applied themselves at school the opportunity to go on an interstate holiday. It also supports a scholarship scheme for Palm Island’s indigenous secondary students to attend boarding schools across Australia.
Eventually, Freeman wants to expand her programs to benefit indigenous children nationally. There are a number of ways to help. The proceeds from Freeman’s book Born to Run , which is available on the foundation’s website, go towards its work.
Olympian Cathy Freeman with young Palm Islanders