The Hastings heroine: CSU student gives back to the community

Charles Sturt University (CSU) social work student Jess Denham has been honoured as the Young Hastings Heroine of the Year for her tireless work with women in the Port Macquarie area.

Jess has been an instrumental player in Port Macquarie’s Share the Dignity drive, collecting donated sanitary items and distributing them to local charities such as the women’s refuge and local homeless shelters. Share the Dignity also aims to raise awareness within the community of the issues of domestic violence and homelessness.

On top of her work with Share the Dignity, Jess also works with Lifeline Mid Coast as a telephone crisis supporter and serves as a board member of the local not-for-profit program Girl Space, which provides a safe space for young women to learn about self-empowerment, respect and self-love.

All Jess’ volunteer work resulted in her being named Young Hastings Heroine of the Year at a special event held on International Women’s Day.

Insight sat down with Jess to chat all things volunteering, studying, motherhood and womanhood.

Pathway to CSU

I spent a significant part of my life in Port Macquarie, but moved away after high school to begin university in Sydney. I completed two years of my degree before moving back home to Port Macquarie to have my son.

When I first decided to return to study, I took baby steps and enrolled in a Diploma of Community Services at TAFE, and through that, discovered CSU’s Port Macquarie Campus. Realising there was a university in my region made my desire to succeed grow, and the possibility of returning to uni become a reality.

The very first time I stepped foot on CSU’s Port Macquarie campus I saw the word ‘Inclusive’ in big, bold red letters. And I felt like I was home.

Then I met Garth Norris, Social Work Course Director, who spoke about CSU and the story behind why the different campuses were built in regional towns – so that those areas with otherwise low university attendance rates had access to higher education.

Everything I felt that day fuelled my passion tenfold.

Coincidentally, CSU may have been my only study option living here in Port Macquarie, but nothing about the experience has felt like a coincidence. I have felt supported, inspired, nurtured and have gained an incredible amount of personal and academic growth. While my hometown has been what led to me to study at CSU, the journey has been far more than that.

On supporting and celebrating women

I have been incredibly lucky that throughout my study journey, I could surround myself with really strong women. Now I work with incredibly strong women who advocate for other women.

I feel like slowly I am finding my place within the world, and starting to own my power as a young woman.

Within my work, I am constantly inspired by the resilience, determination and power that women have.

The three charities and organisations I work with are incredibly important to me as a social work student, and as a passionate supporter of social justice within the local community. I wholeheartedly believe in ‘people power’ and that huge changes can begin with one person.

If I am able to save one life, provide one woman with sanitary items or inspire one youth, then I ultimately feel that those changes create a ripple effect into our world.

Balancing motherhood and study

I feel incredibly supported by CSU in all aspects of student life, which ultimately made the life juggle a lot easier. Having attended a bigger university in Sydney, I find the intimacy of CSU creates a community support feeling.

The flexibility of study options, such as studying online or reducing my study load, have also been invaluable in my first year back into study, while I learned to juggle family and study life.

Where to from here?

Last year I was offered a child and youth worker role at a local women’s refuge, which compliments my study goals and my huge passion for women and children’s advocacy. My career aspirations are to continue to study with CSU, continue gaining experience on the job (which I absolutely love) and hopefully complete my master’s in law and ethics one day, with the aim of working in court advocacy for survivors of domestic violence.

Feeling inspired? Make a difference in people’s lives through a career in social work.