Citizen of the Year for making ‘helping people’ a career

Elise Kellett with Parramatta Lord Mayor

An inspirational Western Sydney University alumna has been announced as the winner of the 2021 City of Parramatta ‘Young Adult Citizen of the Year’ award – in recognition of her substantial contributions to the community as a local volunteer and youth worker.

Elise Kellett, a graduate of the Bachelor of Health Science (Recreation Therapy) program, is employed by YMCA NSW as a Youth Outreach and Inclusion Coordinator.

In 2020, she working in consultation with young people to develop and run ‘The Y Space’ – a new youth drop-in centre at Westfield Parramatta.

Elise said The Y Space gives young people the opportunity to learn new skills by participating in free workshops and wellness programs. Importantly, it also provides a safe base and a source of belonging.

“So often you hear stories about kids loitering around shopping centres, looking for trouble. We’ve turned the tables on that whole idea, and given young people a place where they are welcome to hang out and just be themselves,” said Elise.

“Young people can use The Y Space for whatever they need. They can come learn new skills, meet new people or seek support.”

In addition to her work at Y NSW, Elise’s Young Adult Citizen of the Year award also recognises her ongoing work as a volunteer, with a range of community organisations including Meals on Wheels and The Starlight Children's Foundation. Elise said it was this volunteer work that initially led her on the path to studying at Western.

“When I started volunteering, I realised that my passion was helping people – but I felt that I was limited by volunteering alone, so I started to look for ways that I could make a career out of helping people,” said Elise.

“One day, when I was volunteering in a hospital, I saw a Diversional Therapist who was using leisure and recreational activity to aid patient rehabilitation. I knew then what I wanted to do – so I started looking for courses and found the Bachelor of Health Science (Recreation Therapy) at Western.”

Elise acknowledges that youth work is not a traditional career pathway for Recreation Therapy – which typically supports people living with disabilities, or in aged care. However, she said the degree was able to be flexibly tailored to her interest in this emerging area, and has provided both a unique outlook and a valuable point of difference in her career.

“In Recreation Therapy, you learn about empowerment. You never tell a client what support they need, or what they must do – you work together, in collaboration with the client, to develop support programs that align with their goals and interests,” she said.

“This is so valuable for youth work. When young people act out, it’s very often a call for help and a sign that their needs are not being met. But young people don’t often respond well if help is forced upon them. They need to feel involved; to feel at ease; and to be given a choice.”

Elise said she was able to put this principle of collaboration to use at The Y Space: “All of the welfare programs and activities at The Y Space are co-facilitated with young people, for young people. They are integrally involved in the process, and The Y Space empowers them to enact change for their own peers and community.”

Elise said it feels rewarding to be recognised for her efforts in 2020 – when her work was so significantly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Due to the health situation, a lot of my volunteering work needed to be put on hold. The pandemic also meant that a lot of young people’s support needs drastically changed, and the ways that we were able to provide assistance also needed to pivot very quickly.

“To have this recognition, after a period of such disruption, is very humbling.”


28 January 2021

Danielle Roddick, Senior Media Officer