THE moment a grandmother put on an ill-fitting pair of glasses to see her granddaughter for the very first time will stay with Camperdown’s Penny O’Neill forever.
Likewise the moment Cobden’s Tania Rowan heard her charges find their voices and yell ‘NO’ with force and conviction.
The two women have just returned from the Dominican Republic as part of a newly established program of The 4North Project which aims to stamp out sexual violence against women.
“I have been friends with Matt Gewirtz and Tyler Lagalo, the founders of The 4North Project, for years through my interest in martial arts,” Ms Rowan said.
“When they asked me to establish an empowerment and self protection program for young women, I jumped at the chance.
“The Dominican Republic is known to have one of the highest rates of sexual violence in the world.”
Ms Rowan soon realised to create a change in the attitudes of the country’s youth, a similar program needed to be established for the boys of the tiny nation and enlisted the group’s founders to lead the way.
The project snowballed even further when Ms O’Neill, a Camperdown-based health officer, joined the team with a view to carrying out much needed health checks in the local villages.
Eventually, eight volunteers from across Australia had pooled their expertise and were heading to the Domican Republic to “make a real difference”.
“We were hoping to have 30 kids a day attend our sessions, but ended up with 55 to 60,” Ms Rowan said.
“Initially, the girls were quite timid in their approaches to the martial arts, protecting themselves and in saying ‘no’, but by the end of the week they were so much more confident in protecting themselves and their screams of ‘NO’ were strong, forceful and very loud.
“It was amazing to see the girls’ confidence and self-esteem grow and to see them slowly realise that they don’t have to be victims, that they can say ‘no’, and that ‘no’ really does mean ‘no’.
“It was like they had just been given permission to use their voices.”
Mr Gewirtz and Mr Lagalo were joined by Kyl Reber to deliver the boys’ program, which used martial arts to help defend women under attack, and achieved similar success.
“They explained to the boys that one day they would become men, that strong men made for strong communities and that strong men looked after their women,” Ms
“In a country where women are very submissive, it was a concept the boys had never heard before.
“One boy in particular was so grateful for the insight and said he’d never been shown there was another way to treat women.”
Ms O’Neill spent her days carrying out general health checks in the community, providing first aid training and distributing first aid kits.
“There was a huge range of issues, from serious heart problems right through to basic malnutrition,” she said.
“Poor teeth and eyesight were particularly prevalent.”
Armed with about 100 sets of ‘off-the-rack’ glasses of the -3 through to the +3 variety, Mrs O’Neill gave them to young and old alike.
“To make such a difference in someone’s life is incredible,” she said.
“To see how successful Tania’s empowerment program was and to be able to make a difference health wise was incredible, rewarding, overwhelming, exciting . . . there is no one word to describe it.
“The 4North Project was absolutely amazing and the locals fully embraced it.”
Three school principals have since taken the program concepts on board and young female and male leaders were inducted to continue the good work.
Ms Rowan and Ms O’Neill now plan to return next year to build on the work started.
Locals can show their support by donating ‘off-the-rack’ glasses to the project at Camperdown’s Manifold Place, making a cash contribution online at www.4north.org or by purchasing handmade bracelets made in neighbouring Haiti, which are available at Excuse Me fashion in Camperdown.
Every $30 raised from the bracelet sales is used to fully fund a child for a year at school, including books and food.
Other volunteers who made the trip to the Dominican Republic as part of the project were Matthew Ball, Dianne Taylor (dancing) and Aaron Williams (basketball).
The phrase 4North reflects the four ideals of Education, Sustainability, Empowerment and Security, while ‘north’ symbolises moving forward.