Kimberley girls follow their dreams
Grace Matos, 25, is no longer afraid. Picture: Michael Torres

Crammed into a kitchen in Derby, young Aboriginal women hover with freshly painted nails or try on clothes strewn all through an adjoining room before make-up is applied to their faces.

There is an air of nervous excitement; in hours, at the town's civic centre over the road, they will stride onto a stage in front of an audience of hundreds of family and friends to reveal their dreams and aspirations, dressed up to the nines.

Participant Grace Matos, 25, smiles when asked if she is nervous and shakes her head: not anymore. "I finally did it - and there's nothing to be afraid of," she says.

For the past week, she and nine other young women from Derby and surrounding remote Aboriginal communities had undergone intensive personal development training designed to boost their self-esteem and encourage them to follow their dreams.

They are among more than 250 indigenous women from the Kimberley and Pilbara aged between 16 and 25 to have participated in Goolarri Media's Kimberley Girl and Pilbara Girl programs since 2004. This year, the team hit the road to deliver workshops and heats in Kununurra and Derby for the first time.

As well as the "fun stuff" - make-up and hair, photography sessions and learning to walk like a professional catwalk model - trainers cover serious issues from sexual health to public speaking, avoiding self-criticism, dealing with adversity and developing inner strength.

Kimberley Girl Tour coordinator of the past two years, Nommie Wade, said many young women turned up on the first day of the workshops with their guards up and heads down.

"I've had so many girls with so many issues - broken homes, alcohol and substance abuse, domestic and physical violence," she says.

"Some girls have been moving around from family to family because they don't have a stable living environment; some are young women in their 20s, with families, dealing with domestic violence issues."

For Ms Matos, just walking through the door on Monday was a significant step. A tall and graceful mother-of-three from the Mowanjum Aboriginal Community, she first signed up for Kimberley Girl six years ago but withdrew for a lack of confidence.

This year, she decided to have another go with a nudge from her family: "They probably saw something in me I don't," she says.

In the past two years, Mowanjum has become mired in grief; at least six young people have committed suicide there with many more making unsuccessful attempts.

"Last year it was terrible, horrible," Ms Matos says quietly, looking at the ground.

"It mainly involved drinking and drugs … people fighting with their partners and not opening up to anybody about the problems they had."

Ms Matos aspires to become a police officer to help her community, but until now, her lack of confidence has held her back from applying. Now, she plans to give it a go.

"I see (police) as positive people helping families and people in trouble … I think it would be good to help young people in that situation. This has been about building my confidence."

Julia Louden, 18, is from a vastly different background despite living just up the road in Derby.

Having enrolled at the University of WA to study business law next year, she seized on the chance to develop personal presentation skills in the hopes of securing a better job on graduation.

"The thing with up here is that everything is so laid-back that a lot of girls are at a disadvantage - they don't really get prepared for situations where they have to be professional in their appearance and manner," she says. "There's all these social conventions you've got to know … it can be nerve wracking.

"I'm normally pretty shy … I thought I'd learn some skills to boost my confidence and get out there to make friends and be more comfortable in my own skin, with who I am."

Kimberley Girl's personal development training is facilitated by Kaylene Hunter - a bright, 34-year-old lawyer with private Melbourne firm Maurice Blackburn who grew up between Broome, Melbourne and country Victoria.

She relates well to the shy young women, believing their lack of confidence and "definite shame factor" is partly due to growing up in isolated areas and partly about being Aboriginal: "I used to feel exactly like them," she says.

"I see it not just in my peers and young women I've worked with, but also women in my mother's generation and older. They really need to be encouraged to have a go and make the most of their potential."

She draws on her own career to encourage the young women to overcome challenges in the pursuit of their goals and is a shining example of what is possible; earlier this year, she won a 2012 Victorian Women Lawyer's achievement award for excellence in legal practice.

"Becoming a lawyer didn't happen overnight - there was lots of study involved and lots of sacrifice but eventually it all paid off," she says.

During the workshops, the women are asked to wear elastic bands on their wrists and told to flick them whenever negative thoughts cross their mind.

They are also asked to identify positive things they like about themselves and each other and practice public speaking, on-camera interviews and record voiceovers about their aspirations.

Only then is the rest of the week given over to make-up and grooming, posing for photographic sessions, and strutting the catwalk before the event in front of their communities.

For some former participants, the benefits have lasted long after the bright lights have faded.

In 2010, then 16, Elesha Millar walked into the Derby workshops still dumbstruck with grief.

Months earlier, she had arrived home to find her 32-year-old mother, plagued by relationship and alcohol issues, lifeless in the backyard after committing suicide. Weeks later, her high-school sweetheart was killed in a motocross accident.

Depressed and working in a job she hated, she didn't see much of a future for herself and existed day by day. Now 18 and living in Broome, she works at the Kimberley Aboriginal Medical Service Council - a job she really enjoys - and tries not to focus on positives, not the past.

Wiping away tears, she says Kimberley Girl helped her find the strength she needed to move on. "It definitely kept my mind off things; I met new people, new friends to keep me company … and it gave me hope for the future," she says.

Poised, slender and beautiful, Ms Millar is one of the few Kimberley Girl participants who aspires to be a professional model. In April, she was among a group of them chosen to stalk the catwalks for an indigenous designer showcase in Perth.

But after growing up in Derby and losing friends as well as family to suicide and seeing young people struggle, she also aspires to study in the hopes of helping her community.

"You see girls my age having babies, smoking and drinking and getting into a whole lot of trouble - it's quite sad actually," she says.

"I'm thinking of something along the lines of youth suicide, helping young indigenous women if they've gone through problems like I've experienced … it's not all just about looks, but who you as a person are inside.

"I want to take my experiences with Kimberley Girl further to achieve success in the modeling industry and be a voice for young indigenous women."

Twelve women selected from this year's Kununurra, Derby and Broome heats will undergo a further week of intensive training under the watchful eye of Kimberley Girl founder Kira Fong - a former international model - before the finals in Broome on October 12.

In the week up to the event, participants will receive advice and training in leadership, public speaking and media from the likes of high-profile fashion designer Liz Davenport and journalist Christine Simpson as well as local achievers.

Ms Fong says she hopes to secure new funding for a Kimberley Girl cadets program shelved for a lack of funds, so participants could be trained to deliver workshops to other communities.

"We are nudging the young women from a negative set of life choices onto another pathway that yields a higher payoff for themselves and for their community," she says.

"We are buoyed by the incredible support from individual communities involved in the program and it is moving to see the impact that Kimberley Girl is having on all those involved."

Ms Wade said any perception that the event was an Aboriginal beauty contest was way off the mark.

"The beauty of Kimberley Girl is that we don't discriminate on how tall you are or what size you are - it's for everyone," she says. "These girls are at a stage where they've built up their self-confidence and broken down barriers to be able to get up on the catwalk on a Friday night."

The West Australian

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