Farewell to kids' support program hero

WITHOUT the influence of Peter McMahon in her life, Terri Jones does not know where she would be.

Terri, 24, was one of the original members of Aspire’s Sage Hill Adolescent and Kids’ (SHAnKs) Program which was introduced by Mr McMahon in 1998 to support and provide respite for children who had a family member with a mental illness.

Miss Jones was nine years old when she attended the SHAnKs Program. She said back then she never smiled.

Yesterday, the confident young woman said she was grateful for the role the program and Mr McMahon had played in her life by providing her with an outlet.

“Having a day away from it, you got to do whatever you wanted and had fun,” she said.

Mr McMahon began working at Aspire as a carer support worker in July 1996, and progressed to be Sage Hill Carer Services manager, introducing the children’s program in 1998.

The SHAnKs program provides an opportunity for mutual support, social activities and respite for young people aged six to 16.

Mr McMahon started the program after talking to parents in the Sage Hill Carers Service which provides advice, advocacy and peer support to carers of people with a mental illness.

“There was a need ... (the adults) could come to Sage Hill and get support because they had someone in the family with a mental illness,” he said. “We needed something for the kids. I think collectively we had five kids, or parents of five kids, at that meeting so we started it.”

Yesterday, members past and present reunited at the Warrnambool Botanic Gardens to thank Mr McMahon — with many travelling from Ballarat, Melbourne and Coleraine to attend a picnic and afternoon swim at AquaZone.

It was bittersweet for Mr McMahon, who has been made redundant as part of Aspire’s restructure and amalgamation with Mental Illness Fellowship Victoria, which will assume management of Aspire’s services in south-west Victoria and Tasmania from June 30.

Mr McMahon said he was sad to attend the final meeting of those he had mentored and supported.

He enjoyed being a part of their lives and watching them be happy and have fun, and the sad times too. 

“A lot of the kids because of their situation are ‘over-parentified’ at home. This is just a chance for them to be kids, meet kids,” he said. 

“It gave them a chance to be kids to muck around and make noise, create mayhem.”

He estimated he had worked with up to 200 children in the program and said many returned to volunteer and help and support younger children coming through.

The group met once a month for local excursions and some went interstate and overseas for holidays and to attend international carer conferences.

Sarah Prebble, whose brother has a mental illness, said meeting others in a similar situation was reassuring.

“It’s good to be able to hang out with other kids in the program that have mental illness in their family,” she said

Mum Rhonda Prebble cried when informed Mr McMahon would no longer be a part of the popular program. “I can’t talk highly enough of him,” she said. 

“He deserves a big pat on the back and an award. Peter’s always been there. It’s terrible after today he’s not going to be available”.

Terri’s mum Kerrie Jones agreed: “It’s been a godsend for my family and all of these kids’ families.”

Mr McMahon said he hoped the program would continue and is considering a career in politics to raise the profile of mental illness.

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