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Hetty Johnston AM

Hetty Johnston AM, Bravehearts (Image supplied)

She’s the Australian founder of not-for-profit organisation Bravehearts and one of the most incredibly dedicated and hard working Gold Coasters around. We sat down for a chat with Hetty Johnston AM about the protection of Australian children from child sexual assault and how we can contribute to White Balloon Day this Friday 11th September.

How long have you been a Gold Coast local?
My parents have been living on the Gold Coast forever and we’ve had the Bravehearts office on the Gold Coast for 12 years now. The Gold Coast City Council donated the land for our Bravehearts office and the support from our community has been amazing, with local construction companies building our office and donating everything down to the lightbulbs and grass.

What do you love most about living here?
I love the lifestyle on the Gold Coast, everything from the people to the beaches, hinterland and rainforests being just minutes away from each other. We are so lucky to live here in a place where everything is happening, we have great communities and breathtaking locations.

You’re the founder of Bravehearts, can you tell us about what the organisation does?
We work to protect the children of Australia from child sexual assault and exploitation, breaking the silence and advocating for the safety of our children. We’ve brought about countless law reforms across the country, we played a big role in bringing about the federal royal commission and we continue to fight every day for child protection – we have been approached by almost every state on their legislation. We also provide a range of services for all Australians, providing counselling and support for victims and their families, education and training for children and professionals, as well as completing in-depth research to support lobbying and legislative reform initiatives and promote the safety and protection of our children and communities through an evidence-based approach. We do all of this with a hugely talented team but a financially restricted organisation – everyone is working the job of two people. We certainly provide more bang for your buck here, the stuff we produce astounds me! We are all so dedicated to the issue and there is so much we’ve been able to accomplish, it’s so incredibly inspiring to work with a team that is 100% dedicated to what we do.  We’re not a money-making machine, every dollar and cent that we receive is then spent back on protecting and educating children.

How did you get into this incredible work?
I founded Bravehearts in 1997 to start a conversation about child sexual assault and exploitation because when I began, the words ‘child sexual assault’ weren’t used in public. Our daughter was sexually assaulted as a child, moving me to change the way child sexual assault was not spoken about in the community. More so, we believed the silence and suppression perpetuated further harm to these children, being harmed is enough yet the isolation from the community was only worsening their trauma.

There’s actually no way I thought I’d be in this job, I was working in large corporate roles and politics (keeping parties honest) before this, then I quit everything I was involved in after my daughter came forward with her disclosure to start Bravehearts. It’s been my family’s life and something that we are all very proud of.

White Balloon Day, Bravehearts (Image supplied)

White Balloon Day Friday 11th September, can you tell us what it’s about?
This White Balloon Day we are encouraging the community to raise funds and awareness by wearing white and starting the conversation and this year is taking place as a 24-hour giving day, where the community can make donations to help Australian kids and every dollar is matched by generous sponsors. White Balloon Day is about breaking the silence on child sexual assault and that was the main call at the start, since then we’ve seen a lot more conversation generated. However, since the Royal Commission complacency has set in and that’s something we can’t afford with more than 1 in 5 Aussie children experiencing sexual assault or exploitation before their 18th birthday. That means 1 in 5 children in every classroom, daycare, basketball team, football team, so it’s something that we are all impacted by.

Raising awareness and funds is key, you can’t stop something unless you’re aware of it. From the political agenda, community and government we all need to be aware to help make Australia the safest place in the world to raise a child.

How has the current state of the world increased the risks for children?
The current situation is isolating victims with their perpetrators, as 80-90% of perpetrators are known and trusted by their victims and their families. It’s something that’s difficult to avoid as we isolate children from their schools and friends so they don’t have anyone to confide in, so we need to be particularly aware through these tough time. Children are being horrifically harmed and there’s no other way to stop it. Additionally, offenders are exploring other methods, which is why we’ve seen a massive explosion of online content of child sexual assault and exploitation. It breaks my heart and that’s why White Balloon Day is working so hard. Particularly in Victoria, people need to see everyone wearing white and advocating for our children to enact change. It’s a fight to help the children and parents, we have to say the things people don’t want to say and protect the best interests of our children.

Can you share some of the statistics about child abuse in Australia?
Over 1 in 5 children in Australia experience child sexual assault or abuse before their 18th birthday and despite all of the hard work and increasing awareness, the offenders are winning the battle because there are still not enough resources. Importantly, when 98% of children disclose their sexual assault or exploitation they don’t lie, so if a child discloses to you it can’t be dismissed and it needs to be taken seriously by everyone from families to judges and Governments. We can’t ignore them! 

What can we do to support Bravehearts and White Balloon Day?
You can support us this White Balloon Day by simply wearing white to start a conversation, breaking the silence encircling child sexual assault and exploitation, and donating online at WhiteBalloonDay.org.au. You can even simply make it your work’s charity of choice, choose children. And don’t forget, this Friday on White Balloon Day all donations will be matched dollar for dollar by our corporate sponsors. 

The work you do would be very emotionally charged, how do you switch off?
I haven’t found my off button yet, I recently found the pause button but have since seemed to have lost it. When you see the volume and intensity of this issue, it’s very difficult to step away. But when I’m at home, I’ll turn on some music and head straight into the kitchen to start cooking to switch off – good music, good friends and good food really help!

Tell us your personal favourites on the Coast:
Cafe for breakfast: Anchor Buoy
Coffee spot: Degani have great coffee
Restaurant for dinner: George’s Paragon but I’m normally at home cooking for dinner and I love heading to Arundel Tavern for a lunch
How does your weekend usually look: I have my mother living at home who’s 90 years old, so I spend as much time with her as I can! I spend most of the time cooking and mucking around in the kitchen with food from my veggie patch. I love hanging out with my friends and family, my husband and I are very social, so we always have a lot of people coming over. We really enjoy our home, family, animals – we have a few cows, three dogs and I love feeding the birds.

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