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From small beginnings ...


Cite as: (2004) 78(7) LIJ, p. 34

A group of university students who planted an idea about aiding South African communities has watched their idea grow into a strong-rooted foundation.

It all started with a handful of university students from Melbourne, including some studying law, who shared a desire to help educate less fortunate young people in South Africa.

They harnessed their energy, resources and enthusiasm to plant the seeds of the Oak Tree Foundation – Australia’s first entirely youth-run development organisation.

Eighteen months later, the foundation has blossomed beyond their expectations, even spreading its roots internationally.

Oak Tree has raised more than $100,000, started its first pilot project to set up a community resource centre in South Africa, and involved more than 60 secondary schools across Victoria and New South Wales.

Now there are young people keen to start up seed groups overseas in the UK, Netherlands and South Africa.

“It has been amazing,” said Oak Tree’s inaugural president, Jo Knight, who is an articled clerk at Erskine Rodan & Associates.

“Oak Tree has this huge energy and life of its own,” she said. “It is particularly rewarding as it involves a range of ordinary people who wouldn’t really have been doing this sort of thing.”

Ms Knight was among the core group who established the Oak Tree Foundation, alongside 2004 Young Australian of the Year Hugh Evans.

In 2002 Mr Evans spent time in South Africa where he helped build a community resource centre with a World Vision grant and during the same year Ms Knight spent two months in India on a development exposure course with Tear Australia. It was after their return to Australia they discussed the idea of helping South African communities.

Both were law students at Monash University, attended the same church and had a similar outlook on life.

“There were a handful of us who began chatting,” Ms Knight recalled.

“Hugh had just come back from South Africa and he wanted to build on that.

“What I share with Hugh is a belief that things in our culture can change. Ordinary people can engage in these sorts of issues. They don’t have to be some development specialist.”

Ms Knight said Oak Tree’s foundation group was made up of several law students, although this was a natural progression rather than an intention.

“There are a lot of law students we come across who want to engage in social justice and who have a social conscience. Law students are also highly motivated and can make things happen,” Ms Knight said.

The mission statement of Oak Tree, which is a non-denominational Christian organisation, is to “empower developing communities through education in a way that is sustainable”.

The foundation will work with partner organisations in other countries to achieve this goal.

Its first pilot project, aimed at promoting community education by building a community resource centre in the province of KwaZulu-Natal, is being undertaken in partnership with South African community-based organisations, the Starfish Charity and Sethani.

A second program, “Leaders for Change”, is currently being organised and will support young leaders in developing countries who are actively working to empower their own communities.

Ms Knight said Oak Tree was a member agency of the Melbourne-based Co-Aid consortium, which ensured all projects were properly screened and followed government guidelines.

Oak Tree’s success has sprung from seed groups across Australia which organise their own fundraising events. Larger events are also held, such as “Dinners for Life” which aims to hold 1000 dinners at schools, universities and churches on 10 September this year.

Ms Knight said that as well as raising much-needed funds, Oak Tree was educating Australians about global poverty.

“There have been lots of events and activities that have raised funds, but the process has been just as important as it is starting to educate and mobilise people here,” she said.

By the end of this year, Oak Tree aims to have seed groups established in at least 15 schools and five universities across Australia, have a strong presence in more than 100 schools and have a core supporter base of more than 1000 volunteers nationwide.

Ms Knight attributes the foundation’s success to its “can do culture”.

“It taps into the passion of young people; that we can do something; there’s nothing stopping us,” she said. “I think that freedom and culture of volunteerism stands us in good stead to continue to be fresh and challenging our culture and making a difference.

“I have a huge optimism that young people really do care about these things, and that the energy of young people can bring about change,” Ms Knight said.


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