It is hard to imagine a more capable person than Carmel Crouch, the founder of STEPS Pathways College and Managing Director of STEPS Group Australia.
Based on her own experience as a parent of a child with a disability, Carmel saw the need to create a learning environment that enabled young people with a disability and autism to live independently, undertake meaningful work and provide a valuable contribution to the community.
At an age when most of us have slowed down and retired, Carmel worked with a team of volunteers to build STEPS Pathways College. The College opened in 2017 and the pilot program was privately funded.
Nestled in the ridges overlooking Caloundra on the Sunshine Coast, what Carmel and the community have created is remarkable.
The College is home to 22 boarding students and attended by 50 day students.
Located on the 2.5-hectare site is the College’s head office, a commercial kitchen and café and a plant nursery, as well as units to accommodate students onsite. It is here that young adults between the ages of 18 and 32, with a disability and autism, learn to live and work independently.
As the only disability boarding campus in Southeast Asia and Australia, there is significantly more demand than places available for students. Students and their families work through a number of scenarios to secure a place at the College, including an assessment of their suitability to live independently, family support and capacity to learn.
Students undertake a two-year practical program at the College designed to give them the skills they will need to live independently, including cooking, shopping and traveling on public transport, managing their finances, working with customers in the onsite café and nursery, securing a job when they leave and developing peer group relationships. It is an intensive, 24 hours a day, seven days a week program that is neither parental or punitive.
The College employs 40 staff onsite, all of whom have lived experience working with people with disabilities. Many of the staff have a training background prior to coming to the College and they are continuously updating their skills, including undertaking eight days of full-time training each year. The staff are very driven by the purpose of the College and play a significant role in fundraising for the College and students.
The College continues to rely on the generous support provided by the local community as it receives no funding from the government or local council. It is not financially viable without donations. The boarding services provided by the College are partially funded by the NDIS. There is also a fee for service component, but the majority of support continues to come from the community, staff and corporate sector.
The College, which started with 10 students in 2017, has welcomed students from all over Queensland and Australia and has now graduated 28 students.
After a delicious lunch at our George Street Pathways student training café and a quick stop in the nursery to buy some pots and plants, we leave with an overwhelming sense of admiration and gratefulness that we live in a State where there are people and communities who can create something as valuable and magical as STEPS Pathways College.
When you are next on the Sunshine Coast, be sure to stop by STEPS Pathways College at 9 George Street, Caloundra for a meal and to add to your pots, plants and garden.
We guarantee it will be a place you will keep coming back to.
“Our community,” says Carmel emphatically, “The community we live in is the most generous and giving I have ever known. It is the community that built our College, and we have nearly 80 volunteers who continue to work with us and donate their time.”
Looking around the campus, which includes an impressive plant nursery and café where students work alongside staff, it is testament to what a group of volunteers can achieve.
Carmel also recognises how Queenslanders stick together and saw this culture evolve again over COVID when Queenslanders supported each other through the different stages of the pandemic.
“It is the people and the community – without them we would not have the College,” says Carmel, “Particularly the young people who support us – there are so many young people who come here and volunteer and help however they can, including raising funds for the College.”
Recognising how politically aware the younger generations are, Carmel admires their strength in fighting for issues like climate change and other social issues that are important to them.
“They want to solve these issues and ensure the world is around in years to come.”
Carmel has a very clear change she would like to make within the communities in Queensland and across Australia. The College is already helping to bring about this change.
“I would like more businesses to employ people with a disability and help change the culture around this issue so we get to a point in time where Queenslanders expect to be served by somebody with a disability,” Carmel says, “We see firsthand the positive effect bringing people with a disability into the workforce can have on the staff and culture of a business within our own organisation and others.”
The Caloundra RSL Club has always been a strong supporter of STEPS Pathways College and hired graduates from the College to work in the Club. Carmel has followed their progress closely.
“Senior management have seen a direct positive impact on the culture of the Club. They talk about it making a measurable difference to the staff that benefits the organisation as a whole, particularly around the collegiality among the staff.”
“If we could get every Queensland business to take people into the workplace, it would normalise disability in the workforce and create greater opportunities for our College graduates and others in our communities who might not be offered similar opportunities.”
At STEPS Pathways College, students work within the onsite plant nursery and café learning skills that ready them to participate as members of the workforce when they graduate.
Both the nursery and café are open to the public and well supported by the community.
Carmel recognises that there are very real risks for employers hiring workers with disabilities arising from employment and discrimination legislation, but it is her hope that, as a community, we can get to a place where it is recognised that the benefits far outweigh the risks.
“My hope is that Queensland goes back to how it was, being more laid back and relaxed,” says Carmel. “It was better when we didn’t feel like we had to compete with other cities and regions, and I hope we are able to settle back into and enjoy the beautiful place where we live without the downsides of rushing and traffic.”
Carmel regrets the sense of calm and security that has been lost on the Sunshine Coast and would like people to remember they live in the most beautiful place in the world and behave like they do, taking the time to enjoy where they are and all they have around them, and be kind to each other.
“I would also like to see people be more respectful to each other. It is like we have lost our manners somewhere along the way. I would like to see people pay more attention to the people around them, even if it is only making way on a pathway for someone to pass you by or even acknowledging other people nearby.”
“Caloundra – at the STEPS Pathways College campus.”
“The bravest people I know are those who are parents to children with a disability.”
Carmel remembers the day the very first cohort of students arrived with their parents at the College to begin their two-year program.
“It one of the scariest moments of my life. Yet, here were these parents who were handing their precious children to us for the next two years so they could learn to live independently, and I was in awe of their bravery.”
STEPS Pathways College is an intensive training course designed to provide young adults with a disability the opportunity to further develop the skills needed to experience a life of independence.
The College provides a flexible learning environment for students and offers the opportunity to study as a boarding student living on campus or as a part of a day program.
Based in Caloundra on the Sunshine Coast, STEPS Pathways College provides students with a pathway towards independence and the opportunity to achieve their goals.
The café and nursery are open to the public seven days a week.
Established in 1893, Thynne + Macartney has helped people and businesses to build and grow within Queensland and across Australia, as well as navigate the challenges and issues that sometimes arise. Our firm’s history is intertwined with the development of the State, but we haven’t shouted it from the rooftops. It is just not our style.
However, it is not every day that you get to celebrate 130 years of continuous operation and we thought that was something to shout about, but what to say?
Then we realised there must be other people, businesses and charities out there who get on with what they have to do to make Queensland the great state it is – other Great Queenslanders.