The words foster care and debutante balls don’t often go together in the same sentence, except in the Victorian town of Morwell.
Every eighteen months the tight-knit Gippsland community move heaven and earth to put on a celebration for the region’s most disadvantaged young people.
“I transitioned through quite a few placements – over 40 different foster homes and over 15 different schools. My own childhood is not there,” said debutant partner Mark.
“It’s only sometimes when I see something, or hear something, or smell something, that I remember those places, those schools, those people that I once knew.”
Mark stars in The Invisibles, a documentary following a group of young people as they prepare for what is often one of the biggest and most daunting nights of their lives.
“For a number of years now Gippsland has had the highest rate of children and young people coming into out of home care,” says Berry Street Director of Strategy Trish McClusky, who started the foster care debutante balls.
“It’s quite remarkable and very, very concerning. So for those young people who [grow up] in the context of that disadvantage, it’s all the more remarkable how courageous and resilient they are.”
Volunteers from Berry Street and across the Gippsland community rally together to ensure the lead-up runs smoothly, from organising guest lists, to matching partners and driving young people to and from dancing lessons.
“There’s incredible community spirit in Gippsland. So although people are aware of all the significant disadvantage, they are also aware of their neighbours in the community and willing to reach out,” said Trish.
For a number of years local dressmakers, vintage car clubs, beauticians, hairdressers and photographers have donated their time and services in the lead up to the deb.
“Those guys are just screaming out to have their story heard, and all I did was be the person who was lucky to be in the right place at the right time,” said The Invisibles Director Blake Curtis.
“I really enjoyed going to Morwell every week because you just weren’t sure what was going to be thrown at you.”
The documentary had a profound impact on the way Blake views out of home care, and the economic challenges Morwell faces in the wake of power plants shutting down.
“In a lot of ways, what those guys have gone through has made them stronger than I’ve ever had to be, because they had to deal with things and they’ve had to survive,” he said.
“If a child is misbehaving and they’re challenging people I used to think that they were just a naughty kid and I couldn’t understand the concept of why that was.”
“Whereas talking to Mark, I understand that having been to 40 different placements, what he was doing and being a ‘naughty boy’ was he was challenging them. He didn’t think they were going to stay. And so he tested them.”
Trish hopes the documentary will change perceptions about the 45,000 young Australians in foster care who she describes as “invisible”.
“Yes everybody knows that there are young people in out of home care, but I think as long as people exist in any way as marginalized, or in the shadows, or unknown, that people can hold views about them that may not be the case”, she said.
Mark wants to dedicate his life to helping other young people realise their own potential.
“There’s so much support, so much strength and so much positivity flowing from every person involved…[the debutant ball] was a bolster to my self-confidence,” he said.
“I want to have that influence on a young person I want to give them the skills to succeed.”