Physiotherapist James Cosentino, 31, recently bought a three-bedroom house on the Central Coast, but life hasn’t always been so good.
When he was a baby his father died in a rock fishing accident, leaving his mum to take care of the family on her own.
Life was bearable until she became unwell with an autoimmune disease called Sjögren’s syndrome, rendering her unable to work.
As a 14-year-old he had to work long hours at a shop in Gosford to help pay the bills.
“I was shut down and almost feeling nothing because there was no time to be emotional — it was all about getting by day by day,” Mr Cosentino said.
“Things became more real and survival mode kicked in.”
By the age of 15, Mr Cosentino had to handle the household budget and once he was able to drive he started to run the family shop.
“I had to become an adult very early on and didn’t have time to be a teenager.
“I was more concerned about whether I could pay the electricity bill and get from school to work in time to start my shift.
“Planning for what job I might do after school and what grades I needed for university seemed crazy back then.”
‘Education was the way out’
Mr Cosentino did not let hardship get in the way of his desire to learn and he managed to secure a spot at the selective Gosford High School.
“I was lucky to get into an environment where peers and teachers motivated my focus and determination,” he said.
“It helped, in the long run, to instil a sense of learning and curiosity.
“It led me to believe education was the way out.”
Mr Cosentino went on to complete a master’s degree in physiotherapy at the University of Sydney.
He said his teenage hardship strengthened his resilience and determination to better his circumstances.
“I am in the situation where I am now because of where I came from,” he said.
Breaking the cycle
Recent research from the University of New South Wales has found that 1.2 million young Australians aged 24 and under, or one in six in the age group, are growing up in poverty.
Talent acquisition advisor Indiana Evans says often one unexpected event can plunge a family into poverty.
“I thought it (school) was an opportunity to not be that one in six, to make sure my siblings and kids would not be that one in six,” 24-year-old said.
“No one in my immediate family had gone to university, so it never occurred to me that I would be able to go on this career path and be in my position now and love what I am doing.”
Ms Evans, from Queensland, said education was her escape route from a cycle of disadvantage.
She was in Year 11 when her parents experienced unexpected health issues, which lead to them being out of work.
“In the space of two or three months, our whole world shifted,” Ms Evans said.
As the family’s eldest daughter, 15-year-old Indiana considered giving up study and taking a full-time job to help her parents raise her three siblings.
“I felt guilty and thought my education was taking away from my parents.
“I was worried my university would be a burden on my family, and my Mum would have to fork out money for our groceries to help me.”
Ms Evans said her teachers Michael Seiler and Michael Butler swayed her against that decision and encouraged her to pursue her academic endeavours.
“They said to me, ‘Your life is what you create, and you can accept it as is or do something about it’.
“They made me believe that I didn’t have to accept that my life sucked and there was a future beyond my tough situation.
“Hardship became my drive to succeed.”
Stigma against people with disadvantages
With financial and mentoring help from the Learning for Life program, Ms Evans was able to finish high school and is currently enrolled in a Graduate Diploma in Psychology.
Despite being grateful for the help, Ms Evans said her family was concerned about being judged.
“Some people think the ones receiving Centrelink [payments] are lazy and want an easy way out,” Ms Evans said.
“My Mum and Dad were hard-working and prideful middle-class Australians, so they didn’t want to tell anyone to ask for help, because they didn’t want to be associated with that.
“The words ‘poor’ and ‘disadvantage’ have this sense of stigma.”
Mr Cosentino said the support from the government and the Smith Family was vital in his breakaway from the cycle of poverty.
“If not for the help, I could easily see myself as a substance-abusing, unemployed and struggling person,” Mr Cosentino said.
“I remember standing in my kitchen when I was 24, calling Centrelink to say I no longer needed the payment and I was done.
“That was a proud moment to feel self-sufficient and it felt like a warm ray of sunshine.”
Ms Evans said it was crucial to eliminate the stereotype of people with disadvantages as “junkies” and “alcoholics”.
“Normal middle-class Australians sometimes only need one bad situation they have no control over to tip their life over,” Ms Evans said.
“Sometimes, all they need is a break from the cycle of disadvantage to be able to breakthrough and see clear skies.”Internet Explorer Channel Network