Strength, resilience, compassion and incredible talent are just a few of the ways Freeman Catholic College School Captain TJ Pham has been described.
The 18-year-old leader has dealt with more than his fair share of challenges, but has faced them all with the grace and composure not often seen in a man so young.
It was in the performance rooms of the Southern Cross Vocational Centre at Burwood that the Catholic Schools Performing Arts (CaSPA) team first met TJ, a year 5 student bursting with talent who had to leave the program after a year when his step-father passed away and his mother suffered a heart attack.
“When my step dad passed away it caused some health problems for Mum,” said TJ.
“It’s been 8 years and Mum is still sick but she always says ‘He’s not ready for me yet’!”
Surrounded by friends and supportive staff, TJ started at Freeman Catholic College at Bonnyrigg in 2015 where he was able to embrace his passion for music and performing arts.
“I joined the choir and kept singing the whole way through high school,” TJ said.
“I signed up with every band I could. When I was only in year seven, the year nine band needed a singer – so I joined that one too!”
During a difficult couple of years TJ says the challenges put a strain on his faith. It was the support and care of friends and teachers that got him through.
“I had a really good support network and the school was very supportive,” he said. “My music teacher Miss George was one of the biggest influences on me.
“It was very hard to stay faithful during that period and hard to lose faith at such a young age. Miss George really helped me. She helped me strengthen my faith.
“The staff at Freeman, my friends and the staff at CaSPA, who would check in on me, made me feel wanted and loved. They made me want to fight more to keep going.”
In year 11 last year, TJ was able to return to CaSPA to continue performing for the last two years of high school, and it was experience away from CaSPA that helped him become a role model to the younger students, offering support, encouragement and friendship.
“I saw a lot of potential in the younger kids and I wanted to give those kids someone who could help them. I could make sure they were looked after,” he said.
“No one deserves to feel unwanted or outcast, and CaSPA makes sure they don’t.”
Two of CaSPA’s Education Officers in Creative and Performing Arts Iris McGill and John Panuccio can still remember when they began working with TJ almost 8 years ago.
“We first met TJ as a year five student,” said Iris. “He is a humble and keen student with a genuine love of the arts and a thirst for learning new skills.
“In the 2019 CaSPA LIVE, TJ not only held a leading soloist role on stage but backstage he mentored and supported other young performers.
He kept morale and enthusiasm up before and after shows and in the end, he won the respected CaSPA Spirit Award, an accolade voted on by his peers.
This week, just days after his 18th birthday, TJ and thousands of other year 12 students began the HSC exams, taking their first steps into adulthood and the rest of their lives.
Next year, TJ will begin studying high school teaching in French and Italian, and perhaps a bit of music. He says his faith is strong and he’s ready for whatever life has to throw at him.
“I always think my faith is like my brain, you can’t see it but you know it’s there,” said TJ.
“Every time I lose a bit of faith I just have to look, it’s never gone.
“I don’t know what will happen next, but I know I’m ready.”