What does it mean to care for two chronically ill family members while you're still in high school? For Maddy Buchner, it meant balancing homework and school with late nights and hospital visits, domestic duties, and constant worry and disruption. Often, Maddy says, "it all felt too much". But not only did she survive high school, she thrived.
Now 26, she is CEO of her own non-profit organisation that supports young carers - and she credits her success to Brighton Secondary College and welfare coordinator Karen Gibson. "I honestly don't know if I would have finished high school without Gibbo," says Maddy of Karen, a teacher at the school since 1984, known affectionately by her one-word nickname. With the support and encouragement of Karen and the school, Maddy and her friend Rebecca launched the charity Little Dreamers in 2009, while still in Year 11, initially to provide respite "experiences" for young careers.
Maddy's teachers would help "connect the concepts we were learning with the Little Dreamers business". She finished Year 12 as college captain, completed a Bachelor of Business (Marketing), an internship and a full-time stint in a marketing agency - all while continuing to run her charity.
She had her big break in 2016, while pitching for funding for Little Dreamer's holiday program. A donor was so impressed with her work, he instead offered to pay her salary so she could run Little Dreamers full-time. The charity now has 14 staff, and last year supported more than 2000 young Australian carers in families affected by disability, illness and addiction.
In 2017, Maddy won a Queen's Young Leader Award, which included a four-day course at Cambridge, a presentation by the Queen at Buckingham Palace, and dinner at Australia House, where she was seated next to Prince Harry. "We talked for two hours," Maddy says of her tête-à-tête with the prince. "I had to pinch myself - I couldn't believe how far I'd come."
Yet Karen Gibson is not surprised by Maddy's success. "Our principal would implore students at the first assembly of the year to grab all the opportunities this wonderful school has to offer. Boy, did Maddy take that to heart. To have a vision is one thing, but to make it happen is something really special."
Maddy is now partnering with Karen to pilot an in-school buddy program for young carers. Maddy also publicly thanked Karen in a recent video produced by the Department of Education.
"I think kids can sometimes be surprised by how much teachers care," says Karen. "But for so many of us, it's like they're your own and you're watching them growing up. They are precious, and to see them go on to thrive in their careers is wonderful."