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School speech festival gives voice to first responder kids

Brett, Piper, and Vanessa Johnson.

The voice of children can be hard to hear, the more shouty and privileged voices of adults dominate our world – naturally so.

When children are given a space or platform to speak, their words and wisdom can often cut through the muddle of earlier perspectives, and provide clear air for action and leadership.

But, just as importantly, these voices can build confidence, resilience, and mental fitness in the younger members of our community.

The recent experience of Piper Johnson wraps all that up and perhaps lays the foundation for a similar shared ‘ESKie’ experience in the future.

Piper turns 12 this month, and lives in North West Sydney. She comes from a long line of first responders; her dad Brett has been with NSW Fire and Rescue for 23 years, and her grandfather was a fiery in the sixties and seventies.

When she “grows up”, Piper talks about being a paramedic, but she’ll have a red hot go at being an actress first.

In the midst of online learning, Piper’s school community launched their annual “Voice of Youth” festival.

In their last year of primary school, each Year 6 student is given 5 minutes to talk about a topic close to their heart.

Piper seized the opportunity to talk about her experience in a first responder family and coined the term ‘ESKie’ – short for Emergency Service Kiddies.

“ESKies send their parents out to work with a smile on their face, love in their hearts, and strength in their bodies to keep us all safe,” Pipers says in her video speech.

“I feel very proud that I am a part of this brave family of human beings.

“My job is to raise the self-esteem of not only my dad but the entire frontline community.

“Being an ESKie gives you an outlook on the health and safety of others.”

Click play to watch Piper’s school speech…

The response from her teachers and classmates was positive and goes to the heart of the potential Piper and her family sees with the ESKie idea.

“There were a handful of other kids in our grade that have family members who are emergency service workers,” Piper says.

“And they said to me – I’ve never thought of it that way. But I do have concerns when my family member goes to work.

“It feels like the speech really helped them unlock that feeling and talk about it with other kids who understand.”

Piper’s speech also acknowledges the role families play in safeguarding and building the mental fitness of their first responder.

“We do talk about how his day was at work. And then we kind of say what we did at home and we share our experiences,” Piper explains.

“And when dad is working a night shift, we ring to say – good night, and we talk about our day then. And when he comes home, we give him hugs and we make sure he feels happy.”

Brett says the protective factors in that routine are “unbelievable” and help him remember his “why”.

“It’s a litmus test, a real moment, a boost that I take to work,” he says.

“The support from our family is the most important thing and needs to be acknowledged and supported.”

Being a proud dad, Brett shared Piper’s video speech with his network of first responders. The wisdom and insight Piper shared really hit home – and has forced a rethink for some.

“I took it to work and showed my crew. It was a real moment for them,” he says.

In the days that followed, Brett’s crew reported back in on the conversations Piper’s video had inspired in their own families.

“Sometimes, I think we look to shield our family, and be protective,” he says.

“Piper’s video has started conversations within other first responder families and given kids a chance to ask questions – and first responders a chance to say thank you to their families and talk about their work.

“There are details in anyone’s work that you don’t bring home, but there are things that we do, that the family is aware of, that we aren’t recognising.

“When you are born into an emergency services family, you know. And it’s nice to see that Pipers video has started people talking more openly.”

One of the themes to emerge from those conversations is the worry that kids have for their mum or dad in uniform when they go to work.

“When I am feeling like that, I remind myself that he’s been doing this for a while,” Piper says.

“So, he has quite a lot of experience and he’s been through lots of different things.

“But that also concerns me that he’s been through lots of different things. So, I try to distract myself with something else. I also keep in mind that he will be okay – like he has been many times before.

“But there is that little concern still in the back of my mind.”

That ability to check in with each other and yourself and talk about the pressures of being a first responder family are central to Brett’s mental fitness, and something he is keen to see embedded in other families.

Both he and Piper see a strong ESKie community as being drivers of that approach and are keen to see where the idea leads.

“It’s not just the heroes who are fighting, the families are fighting too,” Piper says in her speech.

“And I am not aiming my speech just at firefighter kids, but also police, medical and nursing, and SES kids.

“I stand with you.”

Fortem activities, events and community engagements are designed to support the mental fitness of our first responder families. Read more about Our Approach.
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