As we celebrate International Women’s Day on March 8, National Indigenous Times shines a spotlight on Australia’s incredible First Nations women.

A safe space for young First Nations girls in schools across the country, Girls Academy is changing lives, one girl at a time.

Started by former basketballer Ricky Grace in 2004 at Clontarf College in Western Australia, Girls Academy has grown exponentially to 43 academies across 46 schools in Western Australia, the Northern Territory, New South Wales and Queensland.

Girls Academy places education at the centre of everything they do, aiming to equip girls with the skills they need or want in order to go down the right pathways to achieve their dreams.

They aim to increase school attendance and have each of their girls finish Year 12.

The academies work hand in glove with schools, with each participating school having a dedicated Girls Academy room – a space where girls can go where there will always be someone there for them.

Mentors set up programs for each academy, catering specifically to what each cohort might need or want. Last year, 74 percent of Girls Academy’s mentors were Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.

General Manager of Operations West, Narelle Henry, looks after all the Girls Academies across WA and the Territory.

Henry has known Ricky Grace since she was a child and has been involved with Girls Academy from the beginning – when there were only one or two academies.

After spending some time away to teach, Henry decided she wanted back in – citing her discomfort at not working in the Aboriginal space.

As General Manager of WA and NT academies, it seems Henry is in her element.

“[Now] I make sure all our academies are meeting the required outcomes for the girls,” Henry said.

“[It’s] being the conduit between the corporate side of things, post-school options, government relations [and] making sure that our staff are happy and healthy, and that things are running smoothly at every site.”

Henry looks after roughly half of the academies across the country and said her favourite part of the job is the freedom to innovate.

“It’s the green light to be innovative around how we deliver our program. We’ve got some pretty incredible bosses who say, ‘This is your space and we’d like you to lead.’

“[It’s] being able to deliver our programs in a number of different ways.”

Recently, Henry has facilitated scuba diving courses for the Karratha Girls Academy.

“We adapt our programs [to the girls] … based on whatever resources are available,” Henry said.

“Each community and each academy has a different flavour.”

“We’re always looking for different vehicles to inspire the kids.”

Henry said she’s also constantly inspired by the incredible energy, strength and passion of her fellow colleagues, particularly when resourcing can sometimes be difficult.

“[In WA], we’re constantly trying to bring the resources up to the level that the boys [at Clontarf] are at, getting some equity there.”

Henry has a deep belief in the importance of Girls Academy, you can hear it when she speaks.

“We’re supporting them and taking away every single barrier that could possibly exist for students,” Henry said.

“Whatever the barrier might be for a particular student, we work really hard to try to figure it out.

“It’s [so] the kids have a really strong advocate for them when they enter their education and they carry through.”

Henry said Girls Academy provides First Nations girls with the consistency and routine they might not get at home.

“With consistency and routine, comes confidence,” Henry said.

“Not only are we giving them a kick up the butt … we’re there as their biggest cheerleaders and advocates.”

By Hannah Cross