Who do you turn to when you’re sick? Your parents? Your siblings? Friends? What if you were the person they needed to lean on? Who would take care of you?

According to the founding director of the Carers Foundation Ronnie Benbow, there are more than 3 million carers in Australia, and 400,000 of these are under the age of 20.

“These young people are looking after their families and people are not aware of it at all,” said Ronnie.

“They’re the ones who are forgotten in society, so we are here to help take care of them,” she said.

More than 400,000 young people between the ages of 13 and 19 are caring for a loved one.

As a former nurse, Ronnie was inspired to start the Carers Foundation not only by her experiences in the healthcare system but as a carer herself: she supported her son during illness then her father in the final years of his life.

“I’m passionate about family carers having a break because personally and professionally, I know what carers need,” Ronnie said.

Ronnie and her husband Mike decided to search for somewhere that would give young carers a much-needed break through a series of three-day retreats.

“Our mission is to create moments of happiness and possibility for young Australians,” said the chairman of the Coca-Cola Australia Foundation, Malcolm Hudson.

Set among the waterfalls and rock pools of the Brisbane state forest, the location provides a welcome escape from the daily demands of being a carer.

“These teenagers are put under enormous physical, emotional and financial pressure thanks to their selfless acts of compassion,” Ronnie said.

“Most of these kids don’t consider themselves ‘carers’ and rarely reach out to support services for help. That’s where the Carers Foundation comes in.

“They don’t even know what’s normal and what’s not normal,” she said. 

Ronnie’s main concern is that these young carers are missing out on their youth. “It’s exhausting, mentally and physically. They just never, ever have any time to themselves,” she said.

The experience of many of these young people is heartbreaking. On arriving at the retreat, one young carer told Ronnie she couldn’t remember the last time she felt happy.

“How is that fair for this poor young girl?” asked Ronnie.

“She can’t face society and she doesn’t even know what it feels like to be happy.”

The three-day Carers Foundation wellness retreats allow young carers to connect with others and form a community.

During their time with Ronnie and her team, the teenagers are guided through a series of mindfulness practices and stress-reduction techniques they can apply in their day-to-day lives.

“There’s a lot of stress involved. Can you imagine being a 15-year-old child caring for your mother who’s dying of cancer?” Ronnie said.

“That child is doing activities that the parent would normally be doing. They have to know how to cope.

“We teach them that even if you can’t change your situation, you just have to learn to live with it in the best way you can and look forward to knowing that it’s not going to always be like that,” she said.

But it’s not all practical skills and stress-management. The Carers Foundation wellness retreats provide teenagers with something even more essential: friendship.

“Of course they’ve all had professional counselling, professional psychologists, but they [counsellors and psychologists] don’t get it. Unless they’ve been in that same situation, nobody gets what they’re going through,” said Ronnie.

“These kids have connected so much and formed a bond within five minutes. They can have fun, be kids, listen to music and do things that normal teenagers do. And when they start talking it’s like they’ve known each other for a lifetime.

“We’re getting them together so that they will have this ongoing support and then we will reconnect with them so they can keep connecting to each other when they go home now. That’s what’s really unique about what we do,” she said.

The Carers Foundation is clearly having a profound effect on the lives of young people.

Now with the help of the Coca-Cola Australia Foundation, the organisation will be able to reach more young carers in need.

“The Coca-Cola Australia Foundation, by supporting these three-day retreats allows carers to get away and connect with other carers who are in the same situation,” the chairman of the Coca-Cola Australia Foundation, Malcolm Hudson, said.

“They form a little community that I hope will be lifelong friends and be able to share experiences,” he said.

The Coca-Cola Australia Foundation is stepping in as a flagship partner of the Carers Foundation. From left: Carers Foundation chief executive Mike Benbow; Coca-Cola Amatil chief transformation officer and CCAF director Kate Mason; chairman of the Coca-Cola Australia Foundation Malcolm Hudson; and founding director of the Carers Foundation Ronnie Benbow.

Through the three-year grant, the Carers Foundation will be able to spread to new locations in north Queensland and northern New South Wales and eventually across the rest of Australia.

“We have plans to move these kinds of wellness retreats across the eastern seaboard of Australia, so that at the end of our three-year partnership there would be success, and that’s what we’re really looking forward to seeing,” Malcolm said.

Despite the ambitious plans of both the Carers Foundation and the Coca-Cola Australia Foundation, it’s the little things that make the deepest impact.

That young woman who couldn’t recall being happy, for instance, left her first retreat changed. “Well, I saw a smile on her face this morning,” said Ronnie. “That makes it all worth it.”

“These kids have connected so much and formed a bond within five minutes. They can have fun, be kids, listen to music and do things that normal teenagers do,” said the founding director of the Carers Foundation, Ronnie Benbow.