When Theresa Mitchell started Agape Outreach Inc 12 years ago, little did she know her volunteer organisation would grow to help more than 1,000 homeless and needy people every year.
Now with more than 200 volunteers and four employees, Agape delivers around 700 hot meals every week between Byron Bay in New South Wales and Runaway Bay in Queensland. Agape’s Tweed Heads charity centre offers case management support for accessing housing, medical and legal services, a newly-launched psychology service and even laundry and shower access. Theresa also organises training classes for vulnerable people to learn skills in cooking, nutrition, budgeting and barista classes.
In addition to running Agape, Theresa is close to completing her Bachelor of Psychological Science, which she’s studying online through Southern Cross University.
This week she was named the University’s ‘Student of the Year’ – a prestigious award recognising her incredible work helping the most vulnerable in the community and her distinguished contribution to her studies.
“Receiving this award is so exciting, it really is an recognition of my work and lovely to have an award with my name on it to celebrate my time at university,” Theresa said.
She explains the word ‘Agape’ is a Greek word, which means ‘unconditional love’.
“I started Agape really when I decided I couldn’t just walk past when I saw people in need and hungry. I’m good at asking people for help, and was able to start getting food donations and started to cook meals and since then it’s just grown. We're not government funded so everything is fundraised and we still collect rescued food from shopping centres, bakeries and restaurants and use that for cooked meals and food hampers for families in need,” she said.
“I wanted to study Psychology because there is such a need in the community, especially now with the mental health impacts of Covid restrictions which have really disrupted many lives particularly those who live in border communities like Tweed Heads and Gold Coast.
“For me studying psychology is also a bit of a retirement plan and a way to earn a decent wage one day. Everything through our centre is fundraised, and Covid has really kicked us in the gut financially with many businesses who support us sadly either closing or dropping off. But one day I want to slow down and take on a professional role as a psychologist in my own business, supporting the homeless and needy. That's what I want to do.
“Southern Cross Uni has been amazing. The teaching is very focused and geared towards the current-day work load of psychologists and the teachers have been very engaging with support and help, and the campus itself is very modern. I’ve really enjoyed the experience and it’s a really nice blessing to come to a university where it feels like they want you there.
“After I transferred from another uni, my first class at Southern Cross was about ‘how to fill in an NDIS application’ and I was so over the moon that this class was so practical and I could use it in the real world to help people – so many things I’m learning have been just so relevant.”
Theresa recently published her first book ‘Stories from the Streets’ agapeoutreachinc.com and plans to pursue doctoral studies, to continue shifting the narrative and raising awareness of the issues surrounding homelessness.
“There are so many stereotypes I want to break down, and I know evidence-based studies can help us change policy and get more support for people in need, whether that’s in domestic violence, elder abuse, or homelessness itself, I think pairing statistics with personal stories can help move the dial.”
Theresa is also working to petition council to trial tiny house living estates to help ease the 20-year-plus waitlist for emergency housing in the Tweed Shire.
To find out more about Theresa’s work, including volunteering opportunities, visit agapeoutreachinc.com
You can listen to an extended interview with Theresa on the University's soundcloud channel.
Other Southern Cross University Student Award winners for 2021 included:
- Luke Austin - Student ambassador and active environmentalist
- Marian Cavanagh - Study Buddi leader helping scores of students with their studies
- Kashmir Miller - Orientation student leader and VP of the SCU Law Association
- Pieta Shakes - founder of @throughtheunexpected charity
- Kat Yee - Student ambassador assisting international students as they transition to uni life in Australia
Media contact: Jessica Nelson 0417288794, firstname.lastname@example.org