Many considered him a champion when he played for the West Coast Eagles. But to hundreds of Indigenous kids across Australia, former footballer David Wirrpanda is a champion for another reason entirely. 

Back in 2005, David started a small program in a West Australian school focusing on nutrition and health lifestyles, and called it the Wirra Club. Nine years later, the Wirra Club has transformed into the Wirrpanda Foundation, with 40 staff across five states, supporting young people in their own communities.

The organisation runs a number of mentorship programs designed to get young people into the workplace, encourage better school attendance and improved nutrition. Its best-known project is Deadly Sista Girlz. Run nationally, the program provides Aboriginal mentors for teenage girls. 

“Deadly Sista Girlz is one day a week for two or three hours,” said Wirrpanda Foundation East Coast Manager, Catherine Gurney. “The mentors will go to the schools and community centres and provide healthy snacks. They’ll have yarning time, where they can talk about any issues they have in that week.” 

Over the course of the year, the mentor will cover topics throughout the year that include community education, self-esteem and confidence activities, nutrition, drug and alcohol and womens sexual health. An important aspect of Deadly Sista Girlz is the exploration of cultural identity.

“In some of our programs, the girls are living in their communities, so they know exactly who they are, where their country is,” said Catherine. “But in some of our urban programs, for example, many of the girls dont know a lot of information about where their family background is from.”

Eighty-two percent of the Wirrpanda Foundation’s staff are themselves indigenous, which is extremely important given the fact that many schools with a large Aboriginal populace don’t have full-time Aboriginal staff. A grant from Coca-Cola assisted the Wirrpanda Foundation to employ a mentor four days a week at Doonside Technology High School.

“She attends in the classroom to help out those girls who need that extra bit of assistance, because they don’t like school or they aren’t going well,” Catherine said. “With the Deadly Sista Girlz, they can go to their mentors about anything, really. Shes an extra support person for them.”

And, apart from supporting the girls in Doonside, the program is delivering measurable dividends. “Last year we completed a social return on investment report for our Deadly Sista Girlz program, and we found that if you give us a dollar, theres $7.80 in savings for the community,” said Catherine. “Teachers notice that the kids’ attitude and behaviour was a lot better after theyd been with our mentors for a few hours.”