The charity arm of a Queensland NRL team is changing young lives with its boarding school education program.

    In a year where Townsville’s Cowboys footy team roared to the top of the National Rugby League ladder and, at time of going to press, are one win away from a chance at the premiership, the team’s charity arm is also kicking major goals — for the 104 young First Nations people in its care at its unique boarding school facility.

    This is a landmark year for NRL Cowboys House, a Townsville facility for students who call some of Australia’s most geographically disadvantaged communities home.

    Set up in 2017, NRL Cowboys House started with 25 students, and now has 104. “This is the first year we will have boys and girls graduating who started in year seven with us and are now finishing year 12,” says Fiona Pelling, chief community and government relations officer for the North Queensland Toyota Cowboys and a director of the Cowboys Community Foundation, which manages NRL Cowboys House.

    “So that’s really super-cool,” she adds. “We have seven students who have done the full program out of 16 due to graduate this year. Our students are getting great educational outcomes, and our onsite learning centres are amazing.”

    The facility partners with 12 Townsville high schools to support students through their high school years. NRL Cowboys House recently expanded its program to support graduates through year 13, because many students continue to live away from home to pursue further education and employment. The extended program ensures they still feel connected and helps them work on getting driver’s licences and navigating their first year of independent living. A number of past graduates have gone on to work as apprentices or are studying at university or TAFE.

    One student who will graduate year 12 soon — Kody Rogers, from Mornington Island, 850km away — started in year seven at NRL Cowboys House. After first attending trade school TEQ NQ and chasing a trade qualification, he has now set his sights on a university education.

    “My new goals are to study Indigenous studies and physiotherapy at university,” he says. “I’m not afraid to try new things and I know that if I work hard, then I can achieve good things.”

    Brave steps

    At NRL Cowboys House, there have been many learnings along the way.

    “Townsville is comparable to New York for many of our young people,” says Pelling. “For a young person who comes from somewhere like Doomadgee or Mornington Island in the Gulf of Carpentaria, it’s a massively different environment to adjust to. Coming here is a really brave thing to do.” (Doomadgee, on Cape York, is a former Aboriginal mission, with a current population of about 1400.)

    “Our kids often come from schools of 100 or less and transition into a school of 2200. Here in Townsville, they feel that they look different and speak differently — and often English is a second or third language. All of this, when you are away from home and family at sometimes as young as 11 years of age.”

    Eighty per cent of the boarding employees are First Nations workers, which benefits the students through shared cultural understanding and backgrounds. All staff need to have a focus of empowerment, and the skills to handle complexities that come with teenagers who are living away from home in a group setting.

    Many of the students have a lot to adjust to socially, emotionally and academically.

    “Getting the right staff mix was initially really hard,” says Pelling, who has worked for the Cowboys for 14 years. “Our focus is on attracting the best of the best — staff who share our passion for our students and can model being good people. We quickly figured out that we need staff who genuinely love kids.”

    Philanthropy strategy at the board level

    NRL Cowboys House is a joint initiative between the National Rugby League, North Queensland Toyota Cowboys, the Queensland government and the Australian government.

    The project cost $22m to build, with two adjoining campuses. The Cowboys Community Foundation needs to fundraise $1m a year to cover the gap between what Abstudy pays as a student entitlement and the true cost of supporting First Nations students from remote and geographically disadvantaged communities, who may have limited senior schooling options at home.

    The yearly $1m in fundraising is mostly generated by philanthropic partnerships and grants, general fundraising with assistance from the North Queensland Toyota Cowboys, corporate partnerships and government grants.

    Philanthropy has been a major priority for the board recently and a specialist full- time head of philanthropic and corporate partnerships, Catherine Spencer, joined the foundation one year ago. She has a background working with different charities and universities. The foundation recently announced its first philanthropic partner to NRL Cowboys House — the Newcastle- based Ian & Shirley Norman Foundation. The Morris Family Foundation and the Sebastian Foundation are also new partners.

    “Catherine is amazing and has really led that philanthropic strategy for us,” says Pelling. “Her first task was to write a strategy that applied to us, asking, ‘what does the first six months look like? Then, what does 12 months look like?’

    “The philanthropic world is completely different,” says Pelling. “Philanthropists are working around a genuine community need that aligns with their own vision and they want to make a difference. They are looking for a social return.”

    Traditional sponsorships can be more transactional.

    “They are about us providing something in return for their investment,” says Pelling. “That might be a deliverable under their Reconciliation Action Plan (RAP), or it might be brand awareness, recognition or cause marketing, or solely under their corporate social responsibility strategy. It’s a very different relationship and usually not a direct tax- deductible investment.

    “We have a strong understanding of corporate sponsorship because that’s what we do as a club,” says Pelling. “So, we have a lot of expertise on the board around that model of fundraising. However, philanthropists and individuals with private wealth, general fundraising, charitable status and tax deductibility is an area of expertise in itself.”

    While the financial forecast looks good and the foundation may make a profit next year, a priority is to make sure NRL Cowboys House is not too dependent on any single form of funding from the government, corporate sponsorship or philanthropy. “We need to support a model for long-term sustainability,” says Pelling.

    Powerful brand, community trust

    The North Queensland Toyota Cowboys is known as a brand that attracts significant backing through partnerships, with many long- term sponsors. Toyota is the principal sponsor, supporting the club since 2003.

    “Rugby league is part of the DNA of North Queensland,” says Pelling. “It really has a great reach, influence and impact and, quite frankly, I think it’s really trusted and enjoyed by so many people.”

    The Cowboys brand also leverages the powerful personal brands of star players past and present, such as former captain Johnathan Thurston. “We have developed quite a good reputation in that space. We have a number of high-profile Indigenous players, really good men who are really good players and who have an influential, independent personal brand, as well as the collective brand of the Cowboys.”

    That club trust benefits NRL Cowboys House, so First Nations parents are willing to send their children to board far away from home.

    “It’s a massive privilege for us to be trusted,” says Pelling. “It’s a massive responsibility that we take very seriously. We have made a commitment to support our young people on this journey. Therefore, it’s our responsibility to not only ensure we have a culturally safe environment, but that we are doing what we say we’re going to do.”

    As the Cowboys Community Foundation board approaches the end of its first five-year strategic plan, she says the next plan will be adopted in 2023.

    “At the end of the day, my long-term vision is that eventually there is no disparity in access to educational choice and we don’t need a specialised service like NRL Cowboys House. That there are no gaps or disadvantage, and our kids can transition into any local high school or mainstream boarding school and survive, thrive and succeed.”

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