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In the late golden light of the afternoon, six young teenagers quickly confer on what song to sing for an impromptu performance and the actions to go with it.
They divvy up props and costume pieces, and run through two practices. An older girl is elected to film it, to show their parents later.
A few minutes later it’s done and they pack up before moving indoors to make professional-looking necklaces for a community fundraiser.
They are efficient and their enthusiasm is infectious. Stephanie Pratikna, 12, and Jemma Keel, 13, say that the Eremeran Study Centre, in Pennant Hills in Sydney’s north-west feels like a home away from home. It certainly looks like one.
“It feels like a family at Eremeran and the girls are all really nice and comforting,” says Stephanie.
“The tutors are all like big sisters, they support you and it’s another place you can go to if you have any troubles.
Jemma agrees. “I like meeting new people here, other girls and new tutors, and I like the visits from the priests and the talks they give to us,” she says.
“All the activities are really fun, and the tutors’ talks are inspiring. They always give us really good advice about life.”
Inside, some older students have arrived to use the study rooms to prepare for their end-of-year exams.
Director Marybel Escamilla says that the centre works closely with parents to meet the personal, spiritual, and academic needs of their daughters. Eremeran is an Aboriginal work for rock, a name chosen for its symbolism of strength and resilience.
By relying on university-aged volunteer tutors and a program which focuses on the whole person, girls are supported in developing healthy friendships with their peers, and mentor relationships with young women who, being just a few years ahead of them, understand the many modern challenges they face.
A strong focus of Eremeran, like its brother study centre for boys, Nairana, is the development of friendships, a spirit of service, and a desire to strive for personal excellence.
“We are partners with the girls’ parents to help them to grow in virtue; to be generous, hardworking, cheerful, and kind,” says Marybel.
“The girls relate well to the tutors who are quite close to them in age. We support them in creating good study habits, a desire to serve others, and to form healthy and lasting friendships with each other.
“We also encourage the girls to grow in their personal relationship with God, we try to teach them by our own example, that we need ourselves to draw strength from our friendship with God every day, and the girls come to that realisation naturally themselves and in turn, provide a good example to the younger ones.”
The study centre began as an initiative of local parents and houses a library, Eucharistic chapel, computer room and study rooms, and living rooms for informal gatherings and talks.
For school-aged children from Year 5 to teenagers there’s a program of social events, community service projects, an annual summer camp, prayer and spiritual formation, and weekly supervised study sessions. Private tutoring can be arranged as well.
Programs for university students include regular talks, meditation sessions, retreats, meet-ups over supper to discuss current events and an annual opportunity to travel to Rome.
Parents appreciate the positive peer groups that are fostered through the programs, the presence of young women mentors, and the emphasis on fun, hard work, community service, and spirituality.
“It’s a safe, beautiful and very enriching environment for them,” says Kate Bowen, who has a daughter attending the centre.
“They have lots of fun and when you go to pick them up you see girls ducking into the chapel to pray – that’s just priceless.
“They get a great social life with regular outings, and through the community service they experience they learn to think of others who are less fortunate than themselves.”
Past volunteer projects have included working with Aboriginal communities in Dubbo, running holiday programs for underprivileged children in Tasmania as well as development work in countries such as the Philippines, India and Mexico.
In Sydney, teenagers make visits to nursing homes, soup kitchens and migrant centres as well as helping elderly members of the community who need assistance in their own homes.
Kate says the centre’s approach is appealing because it augments the values she and her husband try to instil in their children at home and through their school.
“We parents need all the support in raising our children that we can get”, she says. “Our daughters see these young women who wear fashionable clothing and are positive and faith-filled, and they want to emulate them.”
“They get great formation through well-researched talks and just seeing the example of people who are a bit older than them who are happy and doing well reminds them that there’s a life beyond school. It gives them hope for the future.”
Chantal Kos, 14, appreciates Eremeran’s holistic approach.
“There’s a good balance here, there’s time for fun and time for study, and opportunities for prayer and reflection,” she says.
The not-for-profit centre is run by a group of volunteers, school teachers, university students and young professionals. Priests and lay members of Opus Dei provide the spiritual and faith formation aspects.
Girls can be enrolled in programs, or attend individual sessions or events, from Year 5.
Volunteer co-ordinator Eugenia Lopez says that most volunteers are young women who have been attended the centre since they were pre-teens themselves, but that anyone over 18 can apply to become involved.
“They have been to university, had some experience of the world, and want to help to prepare strong and resilient young women,” she says.
“We allocate volunteers to year groups and provide whatever training they need, whether it’s in developing their leadership skills, problem-solving skills, or preparing talks, and we encourage them to live the virtues we promote to the girls.”
Bernie Quinn, a tutor, says that teenagers face particularly difficult challenges today in valuing their own worth and discovering what is truly important to them.
“Girls in particular are faced with enormous peer pressure to fit into a particular mould or social group,” she says.
“Eremeran provides a safe environment for learning and growth where each girl is encouraged to foster her own uniqueness and strive to be the best person she can be.”
For information on Eremeran Hills see www.eremeran.org.au or call 9980 2258.