A young boy, now orphaned stands in front of his mother’s coffin surrounded by social workers. The look on his face – a mixture of devastation and confusion – will be etched on Jane Rowe’s memory forever. Working as a drug and alcohol counsellor in the 1990s, Jane witnessed first-hand how a lack of appropriate rehabilitation services and hospital beds contributed to the untimely death of people struggling with addiction. In one night, four people known to Jane through her work injected themselves with heroin – two woke up and two didn’t. Exacerbating the tragedy was that the two women who lost their lives had children known to Jane.
“I was so devastated and overwhelmed by how needless the deaths were.”
From that point on, Jane made it her mission to raise awareness about children orphaned through parental drug abuse and addiction.
The combination of her professional connections and personal life experience ensured her success. As an eighteen year old just out of boarding school in the 1970s, Jane landed a job in the mailroom of Portobello Road’s Virgin Records run by Richard Branson. She was seduced by the London punk movement and through a period of hardcore partying, she developed a heroin addiction. Meeting an Australian man and moving to Melbourne in 1979, she was inspired to seek rehabilitation, with the support of a close-knit network and the backing of her first-class education.
When Jane became a single mother and sole breadwinner due to a marriage break-up, she used this struggle with heroin to inform a new career as an addiction counsellor, a career which carried her successfully through the next fifteen years.
Fast forward to that funeral in 1998, and looking on as a son screams in anguish sparked Jane’s determination to make a change. She called on her friend Spencer P. Jones and together they railled their friends in the entertainment industry, both musicians and comedians, and held a two night benefit concert in honour of such children. $6,000 was raised and two weeks later, the Mirabel Foundation was established.
Now in its nineteeth year, the concert Music, Mirth & Mayhem is a staple of The Melbourne International Comedy Festival with MC Lawrence Mooney and entertainers like Dave Hughes, Jimeon, Powderfinger, Greg Fleet, Judith Lucy, Gawurra and UK comedian Francesca Martinez.
Every Thursday for at least six months, the twelve founding members of The Mirabel Foundation gathered at Jane’s house in Elwood to discuss the organisation’s vision and mission and to research the target market. The experience of watching loved ones grieving focused Jane’s attention on helping orphaned youth. However a lack of support services for extended family encouraged her to expand into supporting family members (usually grandparents) thrust into the role of primary caregiver through the tragic deaths.
Despite not having ties to a religious organisation, the foundation was named after the patron saint of children. Mirabel was a French woman who cared for ‘vulnerable and neglected’ children who might otherwise be abandoned. She had very little money or resources, but showed warmth and generosity to every child in need:“She never turned a child away.”
The Mirabel Foundation exists to ensure that every child is able to experience the joys of childhood, rather than being forced to grow up prematurely. A mother of three herself, Jane became profoundly aware that it often doesn’t occur to the general public that many people with addictions are parents. People who are aware often have another misconception that children of addicts are automatically addicts themselves.
Mirabel practically and emotionally supports newborns to 17 year olds who have lost a parent to addiction. It assists siblings to stay as a family unit in a safe and caring environment:
“The children we work with are living with extended family (generally grandparents) and is commonly experiencing huge amounts of shame.”
‘Therapeutic groups are offered for children who feel responsible for their parents’ death and like they could have prevented it. Such children experience varying degrees of trauma depending on what they have witnessed over the years, so Mirabel gives them someone to talk to.
“I was always aware we can’t change everyone’s life but with children, there is so much hope. If you can get in early in a child’s life, you can make such a difference.”
Anxiety issues stemming from fear of being abandoned again often result in children experiencing educational delays. Mirabel counteracts this by offering ‘educational programs’, including tutors and support for students struggling with literacy and mathematics. Improving academic results has the flow-on effect of increasing confidence and job prospects and therefore breaking the cycle of poverty and addiction.
In 2017, 56 camps and events were held for 558 Mirabel youth, and 1,023 tickets were donated to enable people to attend concerts and sporting games. In addition, Mirabel House was established as a place of respite so that children could escape to an environment where they are surrounded by children in the same situation. This getaway also allows caregivers respite. Last year, 85 young people and their carers used Mirabel House as a destination for their family holiday.
Through The Mirabel Foundation children assessed to be at high risk of developing an addiction are paired with mentors. During 2017, peer mentoring was provided to 279 at-risk youth. Additionally a Young Teens Group taught 52 people domestic duties and life skills arming them with the tools to be independent.
Last year 49 kinship support groups played host to 146 primary carers and gave them a safe space to share their emotional experiences. These groups enable people to seek advice about how to best care for loved ones who have witnessed the traumatic consequences of addiction.
Jane suggests the exponential growth of the foundation is indicative of the great need for such services. For the amazing team of twenty-five staff and more than forty volunteers at Mirabel, each day is different. The Family Support Team commonly receives a referral about a family in need and spends time on the phone with a relative establishing the situation. This representative then visits the family home, with the aim of linking family members to the Mirabel support group and assessing what assistance they need, whether it be material aid or emotional support. A day at the foundation could involve running of any of Mirabel’s programs or dealing with the crises that may come in.
For many of the young adults supported by the foundation, Mirabel was the only constant, taking on the role of a surrogate family. Therefore, an alumni group has recently been established, enabling Mirabel youth aged 18 – 30 to stay connected through a Facebook group, and providing opportunities to volunteer or become mentors. In 2017, the alumni group gained 115 new people who have been assisted to lead constructive lives with the support of Mirabel.
One of Jane’s proudest success stories is a Mirabel alumni who lost both his mother and father due to addiction. When he first became know to Mirabel, he was struggling at school and had behavioural issues due to his grief and trauma. He has recently completed his studies in Youth Work and been employed by Mirabel.
Assessing the tangible value of The Mirabel Foundation, Social Ventures Australia conducted a social return on investment evaluation and found that for every dollar invested in Mirabel, there’s a social return of $6.60. The charity is currently supporting 1600 children, and averaging seven new referrals a week.
Her dedication to breaking the cycle of addiction earned Jane a place on the 2015 Australia Day Honour Roll as a Victorian Local Hero Nominee.
As a community organisation, Mirabel is able to achieve social change through the generosity of individual donors and philanthropic organisations. For those not in a position to make a monetary contribution, probono advice support and expertise is greatly appreciated.
Jane’s message is simple: Community awareness and education will bring about social change and give rise to more kindness, compassion, acceptance and inclusion, which all humans crave:
At its core Mirabel aims to give its people a senseof love, belonging and hope for the future.
“Through your generosity you helped us to navigate through a very hard time in our lives bringing a whole lot of light into our lives. Your work and contributions are just amazing and the support groups you provided throughout the year were just what we needed to get us through.”
Such is the legacy of The Mirabel Foundation.
To find out how you can be involved in the work of The Mirabel Foundation, or contribute to the ‘Softies for Mirabel’ handmade toy drive, visit https://www.mirabelfoundation.org.au/ or the official Facebook group.