3 June 2023

Ten years after Hayley was homeless at 13, the government is asking her for advice

| Travis Radford
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Hayley Whatman speaking to a group.

Hayley Whatman is one of the newest members of the ACT Youth Advisory Council, but the 23-year-old says it hasn’t been an easy journey to this point. Photo: Supplied.

After Hayley Whatman left her family home to escape domestic violence at 13 and then “faced the world on my own” during her remaining teenage years, she made a pact with herself which has endured to this day.

“I’m not going to live the way that I’ve had to live. I’m going to create a future for myself. And what I need to be able to do that, is to try my very best at everything,” the Wiradjuri woman remembers telling herself.

But Hayley says it has been a long journey towards building the confidence to say these words. Back when she was couch surfing in her regional NSW hometown, she sometimes struggled to see past the next week.

“My concerns were very far from typical teenage worries,” she says. “Primarily, I was consistently worried about having enough to eat, a safe place to sleep and keeping my situation hidden from others.”

Hayley says overcoming these challenges while still showing up to school every single day has taught her she can take care of herself and achieve things when she puts her mind to them.

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When Hayley graduated from high school, her mind turned to further education and she relocated to Canberra to attend university and launch a career in the out-of-home care sector.

She has now completed two diplomas, on her way to completing a Bachelor’s degree in social work and working full-time for ACT Child and Youth Protection Services.

“That was a really big pivotal point for me, creating that stability for myself in housing and in work and in my career,” she says.

“I began to speak up about what I’d been through now that I was stable and realised that upon reflection, it was not easy but I’ve made it here.”

Hayley’s accomplishments were formally acknowledged in 2022 when she received a Young Canberra Citizen of the Year award in the personal achievement category.

“[The journey] was hard but I truly believe from the bottom of my heart that I have gone through what I have gone through to be able to help other people get through those things as well,” she says.

This “purpose” led Hayley to apply for the ACT Youth Advisory Council, a 15-member council of young Canberrans between 12 and 25 years of age, who provide advice on youth issues to the ACT Government.

In May 2023 she was announced as one of seven new advisory council members, responsible for raising awareness about the aspirations, needs and concerns of young Canberrans.

The 23-year-old says she is proud to share her story to help other young people facing adversity find their voices and arrive at their own “I’m still here and I’ve made it” moments.

“I’m just so fortunate to be in a position where I can say, ‘This has happened and it’s okay because I’ve made it through,'” Hayley says.

“But there’s so many other young people who … might not be able to see the light at this point in time.

“I want to be that voice to be able to give them access to feeling like they have a chance.”

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Hayley acknowledges current cost of living pressures make this a significantly more challenging goal for young people experiencing hardship today.

She says one of the changes she will be advocating for in this context is increased employment and skill development opportunities for less advantaged young Canberrans.

“There’s so much capacity at present to build upon that in so many different ways, [for example through] workplace initiatives but also skill-building and resilience-based frameworks and programs running through our education system.”

Hayley says another of her priorities is supporting and increasing young Canberrans’ access to mental health services, including by confronting a stigma she says still exists.

She encourages all young people to join the conversation and register to attend the 2023 ACT Youth Assembly on Friday, 23 June and to get involved in the community sector.

“No matter who you are, where you come from, what your colour is or what your your experiences are, community work … does not have to be something you study for.

“It is something that can be so small or so big. It’s just every contribution, every helping hand in the community [and] it makes such a difference.

“I’d like to thank everyone who’s out there doing everything or anything they can fit in to help out.”

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