On an unseasonably warm evening in Sydney, the doors of the elevator slide open onto the 25th floor of the AMP building. I collect my name badge and accept a glass of champagne. I catch glimpses of the Sydney Harbour Bridge as I make my way through the throng of people. The atmosphere is festive with a current of nervous anticipation. A little like the moments before a wedding or a grand final or a concert.

Except we are not here to celebrate love, or barrack for our team, or scream for our favourite singer. We are here to help three women make the world a better place by pledging money to their causes: homelessness, refugee literacy and domestic violence.

But before the pledges come the pitches. The three social entrepreneurs have six minutes each to tell us their stories and how the money we promise later in the evening will be used to help the people they help.

I know they have received pitching coaching from The Funding Network, but they must feel nervous. I feel nervous for them.

The MC for the evening breaks the ice by asking everyone to take a minute to introduce themselves to a person seated nearby. We acquiesce with enthusiasm and high spirits, chatter filling the room.

And then it’s time to get down to the heart and soul of the night – the first pitch is about to begin…

The woman and the man under the bridge

Lana Borg is indeed nervous but she soon finds her rhythm. Some years ago, Lana and her husband Roger heard about an elderly gentleman living under the Nepean Bridge in Penrith in Sydney’s West. He was suffering from alcoholism and mental health issues. Lana and Roger tried to help him but he would only accept some food.

“This gentleman ended up dying alone under the bridge, being found hours later by some school children, beside him only empty alcohol bottles. That evening when Roger and I were placing flowers where he died,” says Lana, her voice faltering, “we knew we needed to find a way to support those that had nobody else. Our journey towards a fully supported drop-in centre was born because it’s not okay for anybody to die alone.”

I glance sideways and notice my sister wipe away a tear. I glance further along my row of seats to see more tears. Deep breaths, this is even more emotional than I expected.

We learn that Mama Lana’s Community Foundation now helps up to 90 people a night – men, women and children either homeless or struggling to make ends meet. And Lana and Roger’s dream is now a reality with the opening of a drop-in centre called The Little White House.

“We want to create a place of acceptance without judgement for the often forgotten in the community. A place of belonging and respect and dignity,” says Lana.

There’s only one thing still out of Mama Lana’s financial reach – a commercial convection oven costing $15,000.

Right now, the 100 meals that Lana and her volunteers serve each night are made in their ovens. In their homes. After they have all done a full day’s work.

If Lana could raise enough money, they will have more time to make a greater impact on the people they call their second family.

“The one thing that Mama Lana’s has given us is the satisfaction of knowing that we are making a real difference to people’s lives. We are all capable of being able to make someone else’s life a little better – with no strings attached.”

Lana turns with a smile to show us those same words on the back of her Mama Lana’s t-shirt.

The nun and the refugees

Next is Sister Diana Santleben from Zara’s House Refugee Women’s Centre in Newcastle.

While helping refugees from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, Sister Diana and her colleagues discovered that after two years of studying English full time at TAFE, 80% of the women still considered themselves to have poor English skills. Further investigation revealed that most of the women had never attended school or learned to read and write in their own language. Fluency in a second language is hard enough after a certain age, but pretty much impossible if you are not literate in your mother tongue.

With the help of refugee Habiba Mehraban who taught Dari in Afghanistan, and who joins Sister Diana on stage, they began to devise a plan for a Mother Language Literacy Program.

The first step was to download the kindergarten curriculum produced by the government of Afghanistan. “You can buy anything online. Anything!” quips Sister Diana bringing levity to the evening.

The first step in devising a Mother Language Literacy Program was to download the kindergarten curriculum produced by the government of Afghanistan. “You can buy anything online. Anything!” quips Sister Diana.

After the laughter subsides she tells us about the rest of the plan: identifying women who can teach; getting them Australian teaching accreditation; providing child-minding so the women are free to teach and study; buying Opal cards for all the women so they can use public transport to get to classes; finding and developing teaching materials (currently they have hit a roadblock – in Australia there’s only one multilingual children’s picture book in English, Arabic and Dari); and the ultimate aim – to help the women  gain Australian citizenship.

“Are you ready to hear my heart-wrenching and rousing thing I want you all to hear? I wrote this 16 times, you must hear these words!”

I imagine those taught by nuns are laughing the loudest.

Sister Diana needs $30,000 to implement the plan over the next two years. That’s $850 a week for 40 weeks for about 40 women. But that’s just for starters.

“Hundreds of women will be affected by this over time, probably thousands. We’ve never done this in Australia before. And we will have removed one of the greatest barriers in our country to advancing Australia fair – illiteracy in women. And what would the cost be of doing nothing? Isolation, disempowerment and a lesser country, a much lesser country, and weaker families. As they say, teach a boy to read and you educate a man, teach a girl to read and educate a family, a nation, the future. So tonight you have the opportunity and the honour – and the honour – to give us money. The money we need to help these refugee women start that wonderful journey. Thank you in anticipation.”

The survivor and the domestic violence victims

“Do you know how many women die every week because of domestic violence in Australia?” asks Simone Patterson from The Sanctuary Women and Children’s Refuge.

It’s one, Simone tells us. One woman dies every week in Australia due to domestic violence.

Simone and her husband Nigel have a very personal reason for setting up the refuge. Simone grew in Sydney in a home afflicted by extreme domestic violence. She describes her father as a very violent man who one night put an axe through the front door.

“I don’t want another child to go through the childhood I had. I love my parents, but it was hell.”

I’ve barely had time to wipe my tears away when Simone divulges a fact that stuns me.

“Women from all around Australia come to the refuge because it is unique – it is the only refuge in Australia that takes boys over 12.”

I think of my five nephews aged between 12 and 17 and the lovely lives they live, but I barely have time to process this information when lightness returns. The other unique aspect of Simone’s refuge is that the women and children fleeing their homes can bring their pets.

“For me it’s a no brainer. I love animals, I just have a passion for animals. And Nigel. He hates them. He hates all the animals.”

Simone laughs, the crowd laughs, Nigel gives a wry smile and raises his eyebrows.

“Every few weeks I wait until he’s not around and I smuggle another little animal in and he goes ‘there’s another duck and it’s got a pom-pom on its head’…”

Then we are back on the rollercoaster of emotion and the laughter subsides. Simone holds up crosses with the names and photos of women who have died at the hands of their partners. Young, old, from all walks of life. “These women are dying because there are no places to go … we offer a place for the women to go.”

Simone describes the horrific injuries that women arrive with: broken necks with halo collars drilled into their heads, compressed cheekbones, fractured arms. Even the pets can be as hurt as their owners – broken tails and spinal injuries collateral damage of homes scarred by violence.

“We see a really ugly side of life sometimes. They come in so broken and they leave different people. They are like swans that take off. And that’s what we want, that’s the yes moment when we know we’ve done our job … We want a place of healing and that’s what we are doing. We are healing and providing a place of safety and security,” says Simone.

“Mother Theresa once said ‘I alone cannot change the world but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples’. We want to be the drop in the ocean that helps domestic violence. If you can help me it would be really wonderful. We need your help.”

Soon the 190 people gathered here, with nowhere to hide their tears under the fluorescent lights, are going to help.

The Pledging

Lana, Sister Diana, Simone and their supporters leave the room. An advocate for each organisation will give a short speech and make and an initial pledge to get us a going. All we have to do is raise a hand and give a dollar amount and our name. There is a minimum pledge of $100 but there’s no glass ceiling here, as we’ll soon find out. Even better, the AMP Foundation will match the pledges.

There’s a slight pause before someone raises her hand for Mama Lana’s. And then the pledging quickly picks up pace. Hands go up across the room. $200. $500. $100. $1,000. $300. $100. $4,000. To my left a TFN employee is tapping away at a computer so we can watch the total rise before our eyes on a big screen at the front of the room.

People gasp and clap when someone calls out a figure over $1,000. Those of us at the front may be craning our necks to see who it is but it doesn’t feel like a competition. It feels good, it feels intoxicating.

Somewhere behind me a group of young men have been making significant pledges all evening but the final donation of the night brings the house down.
Somewhere behind me a group of young men have been making significant pledges all evening but the final donation of the night brings the house down.

Brothers, wives, employees pledge on the proviso that their sisters, husbands and bosses match their pledges. People get creative. “I pledge $200 if someone also educated by Catholic nuns pledges $200.” “I pledge $300 if someone not educated by Catholic nuns pledges.” The 13-year-old girl behind me, whose family has already pledged thousands of dollars, pledges $100 on behalf of her dog. My sister pledges if someone else with a boy over 12 will pledge too.

There is a final flurry of pledges across all three organisations. Somewhere behind me a group of young men have been making significant pledges all evening but the final donation of the night brings the house down. Let’s make it an even number says the man of the total pledges to The Sanctuary. He pledges $21,700.

I cannot wait for Lana, Sister Diana and Simone to come back in.

The Results

One by one the total for each organisation is revealed.

To Mama Lana’s Community Foundation, $70,750.

To Zara’s House Refugee Women’s Centre, $75,000.

To The Sanctuary Women and Children’s Refuge, $100,000

Stunned silence, tears, hugs, laughter and beautiful heartfelt speeches.

It has been a remarkable night. As I leave the building, blinking in the night, I feel enervated and energised.

The next day I discover Sister Diana is right. It is an honour to fulfil my pledge.

Sister Diana, Lana and Simone have good cause to celebrate – it has been a stunning evening of crowdfunding.

To learn more about The Funding Network, please do visit their website.