An interview with Mel Thomas, Founder KYUP PROJECT.
I first met Mel Thomas in 2013. I was a guest at Layne Beachley’s Aim For The Stars Gala Dinner and Mel was receiving a grant from the foundation. I remember distinctly her engaging smile, her vivacious personality and her desire to learn and absorb everything around her. Little did I know at the time the darkness of her past or truly understand the depth of her drive to change so much. Over the years, I have hear Mel’s story, witnessed firsthand her growth as someone taking action – and massive – and that engaging smile? Well it’s still the first thing you see. Words I’d use to describe Mel – resilient, determined, inspiring, kind-hearted, big spirited, empowering, giving.
You see, Mel is one of those stats – one of the too many victims of domestic violence and now she is a woman on a mission. As the KYUP website states, she ‘believes every girl has a fighting spirit, and that she doesn’t need to be a ninja to raise her standards or to value and champion her safety and wellbeing.’
In 2006 Mel was a proud Commonwealth Bank Australian Of The Day and an Australian of the Year nominee in 2017. Most recently, InStyle Magazine announced Mel as a Finalist, Women of Style, 2017.
Here is why Mel Thomas is a woman that will Never Ever Give Up!
JG: Mel, I’d love to share more with our readers about what you do.
MT: I am a woman on a mission to empower girls and women with self worth and self protection skills. I am a mother and a martial artist, writer and presenter. I coach teen girls to tune their intuition and use the power of their voice. Whether it is taking a stand for herself or others , turning around negative self talk or shouting out in self defence. I believe every girl has a fighting spirit and she doesn’t need to be a black belt to use her voice, know her worth, raise her standards and physically protect herself.
I have learned self protection and self worth go hand in hand. As a girl I didn’t know I was worth protecting, I didn’t stand up for myself and others and I perpetuated the cycle of violence with abusive and controlling partners.
In 2012 I met a young girl who had been assaulted by a group of boys. she had been at the local park after school with her little brother when a group of older boys came along and started making comments about her looks. The remarks escalated and she told me she was hoping someone would come along to make the boys leave her alone. She became so afraid she found the courage to stand up and go. That’s when one of the boys reached out and grabbed her by the arm. He pulled her onto his lap and the girl ‘froze’. Taking her silence as consent the boys physically and mentally assaulted her.
When she finished telling me her story she asked “what had she done wrong?” I told her what I have since gone on to tell more than 10,000 students – you do the best you can with the life experience you have and when you know better you can do better.
Having lived through domestic violence, teen bullying, both as a victim and instigator and street violence, I know from personal experience the powerlessness of not having a voice. Today, I help girls understand their bodies crisis response mechanisms and give them the tools to deal with past violence. I talk to girls about intuition and the power of the voice, not only to shout in self protection but to take a stand and speak up for herself and others. Girls learn they are stronger than they think and capable of powerfully dealing with a situation that doesn’t feel right.
I deliver my unique violence prevention education in schools, universities and in local communities. My workshops are based on more than 20 years of specialist self defence training in Hapkido and leading expert insights. Since 2013 I have collaborated with premier educators and experts in psychology, sport, wellbeing and research.
JG: What do you love about your work?
MT: In 1974, the year my father kicked my heavily pregnant mother in the stomach and the year I was born, NSW had 1 woman shelter. Domestic violence were non existent and AVO’s would not be introduced until 1982. It would be another 14 years before courts appointed Domestic Violence Liaison Officers. Fast forward to today:
- Intimate partner violence is the leading cause of preventable deaths for girls and women aged 15-44.
- A woman is killed each week by her partner in Australia
- Indigenous women in SA are 80 times more likely to be hospitalised from an assault than non indigenous women.
In 20 years time will my daughters read the same statistics?
I am passionate about connecting the dots and shining a light on the family violence problem that is the same as it was 30 years ago. 20 years ago I walked into a self defence class with zero intension of ending the cycle of violence. I didn’t even know I was in it!
It’s an honour to pay forward the skills I have learned to protect myself and help others and I’m proud to be a real role model for girls in a real life world.
JG: Can you tell us a little about your childhood/early years and how that influenced what you do now?
MT: As a child of the 80’s, domestic violence campaigns simply didn’t exist. No kid came to school and said they were living with family violence. We didn’t talk about it in schools, we didn’t talk about it with friends or neighbours and if things were bad enough and you needed to call the Police you didn’t talk about it with them either. In a story I wrote for the Herald Sun I interviewed a Senior Police Officer and he told me “cops were told not to clog up the courts with domestics!” I believe it, my father was a violent misogynist with alcohol and gambling addictions. I called the police to stop my dad from assaulting and nearly killing my mother and sister countless times. The Police came and went. Only the colours of my mother’s blood soaked blouses changed.
Growing up with domestic violence was normal , not just for me but for countless kids across the country. the ASCA reported children who silently suffer alongside their mother’s beatings, abuse and belittling grow into adults with heightened grief, shame, self-blame and alienation. One third of kids from my generation, repeated the patterns of abuse. Possibly never knowing another ‘normal’.
Domestic violence shaped and impacted my choices and I’m not alone. I am one of a third of Australians who grew up with family violence. If we are serious about ending the cycle of violence and saving lives then we need to tell the whole story.
I work with teens who put on a brave face and deal with the emotional and legal complexities of family violence. These kids need to know they are not alone, there is another ‘normal’ and as a community it is our responsibility to get them there.
JG: Who or what inspires you in life and your career?
MT: Oprah! Love her or hate her, and seriously how could anyone possibly not love Oprah, no one can deny she is a powerful and unstoppable human being. Oprah is a woman who overcame poverty, abuse, racism, sexism, body image issues and access to education action to take on the world and win. Oprah’s triumph over adversity is not just for her it’s for all of us. She speaks out on every issue that impacts the human race and is irrefutable proof, one woman can make a difference.
Closer to home I am hugely inspired by Layne Beachley. As a recipient of a scholarship through her foundation in 2013, I know firsthand the significance of her charity. Frankly, I wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for Layne and her ongoing support of Aim For The Stars and her network. I admire her dedication to helping girls and women realise their dreams and fulfil their potential. I love her compassionate heart and have come to learn we have travelled many different paths but we are working to the same destination – empowering girls and women.
Finally my momma is a continuous source of inspiration. Mum has overcome adversity with grace and dignity. I don’t know anyone who has had as many curveballs in life and she doesn’t just play on, she charges on with courage and resilience. My mum is made of strong stuff. Loss, heartbreak and abuse are not an uncommon story in families but to suffer so much for so long in abusive relationships – it think it would dim the inner light in most. Not mum, she’s deep of heart and mind and light of spirit. Mum’s my hero.
JG What has been your career highlight to date?
MT: Every time I have the good fortune of working with a group of girls is a highlight. Watching the girls shout at the top of their voices and write words of affirmation on their skin is AH mazing and all the motivation I need to do what I do.
In the early days I ran the workshop for Kings Cross police and at risk youth. I began the course by telling the students and the police about what we would be doing. I explained t the end of the course we would hold a graduation ceremony and present a demonstration to showcase all the kids had learned in the course.
A 15 year old boy interrupted and said to me matter of factly “No not me. I can’t do this Mel.” I learned the kid had cause for self doubt. He was living with an abusive father, he was smoking meth and he ad been kicked out of his last school. I turned to the boy and said “Not only do I think you will participate in the demonstration, you will be SO GREAT YOU WILL DEMONSTRATE FOR THE WHOLE COMMUNITY.”
Perhaps this was the first time he had to step up, or maybe it was the first time someone truly believed in him. I don’t know and I never asked him, but 8 weeks later the same boy and his class demonstrated all the skills I had shown them. More than a dozen uniformed officers as well as a bunch of people came along from the local community it was amazing to see his rag-tag group of kids transformed into group of energised and enthusiastic teens.
Later, an Officer told me the boy has asked about joining the police force. We were able to set him up with additional training and he went back into school. Throughout my career I have been blessed with many memorable highlights but as I sat in my car after the little graduation ceremony I knew I had experienced a moment that would always be hard to top.
JG: Are there any motto that resonate with you, or that you live by?
MT: I share a quote by Maya Angelou with teen girls to help them deal with past violence. “When you know better you do better.” This quote resonates with me – I particularly love the wisdom of experience and education behind these words. We do the best we can with experience and the skills we have. Understanding that sometimes we don’t have a choice in our life experience or how we respond in a crisis. I tell girls all the time you are not trained emergency services personnel. It’s ok if you didn’t deal with the situation the way you wanted to. Lets focus on what you can do.
You can choose to learn from the misfortune, you can choose to forgive yourself and you can choose to be awesome. Mostly you can choose to grow into the best woman you can be because – when you know better you can do better.
JG: What is the best piece of advice you’ve been given?
MT: I’ll never forget when I wrote a deeply personal story about the history of family violence in Australia for a leading newspaper. The editor called to say my story would run the next day as a lead opinion piece. Instead of feeling elated to see a story I had worked so hard on go to print I was afraid.
I called my mother immediately, worried about what she would think. In that moment, seeing my story in black and white it really hit home, our stories are intertwined. After leaving my dad, my mum made new life in another state. Her experience of living with domestic violence was not common knowledge. I knew mum was a survivor but did I have a right to ‘out her’?
Mum was proud of the work I did with women in domestic violence crisis behind the scenes but this was different and I wanted her blessing. Her response will stay with me always, “be brave darling, own your story.”
When people ask, “where do I get the strength to talk about a difficult past?” I tell them about my mum. I am the daughter of a warrior. I speak for every girl that grows up with family violence and comes out the other side. Own your story.
Dr Brene Brown said, “Owning your story can be hard but not nearly as hard as spending the rest of your life running from it. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness we will discover infinite power of our light.” I’m not running anymore.
JG: What would you like to achieve in the future?
MT: I have big dreams of making self worth and self protection skills part of the Australian high school curriculum. I am a firm believer in collaboration! I am excited about upcoming projects that will see me and KYUP! PROJECT working with NGO’s, government and leading experts to bring about vital violence prevention eduction.
By the time a girl starts high school in my home state of NSW she will know how to swim between the flags, protect her skin from the sun and even dial emergency services. But what about when a situation doesn’t feel right? Wouldn’t it be great if girls could protect themselves as easily as the Cancer Council ‘slip, slop, slap’ campaign? I believe it’s possible.
I draw inspiration from Surf Life Saving Australia, just like you don’t need to be a life saver to be safe on the beach, you don’t need to be a ninja to be safe on the street. Through KYUP! PROJECT I am involved with youth projects in regional indigenous communities. I have seen first hand the difference to indigenous culture and the community at large when indigenous teen girls are given a voice. I’m passionate and committed to breaking the cycle of violence in our indigenous communities where girls and women experience higher incidents of hospitalisation from assault.
JG: Richard Branson said. “No – one can be successful alone.” Who has been in your corner driving your success and pushing you to do more?
MT: My long suffering hubby Craig is a tower of strength. He has been encouraging and supports me every step of the way for the past 18 years. My mentoring relationships are absolutely essential. Not only to grow KYUP! PROJECT but also to keep my sanity. Layne Beachley kept the faith in KYUP! long after I won the scholarship in 2013. She keeps me honest and supports my personal growth and purpose. I am nothing short of blessed to have a World Champion in my corner. Nikki Fogden Moore, The Vitality Coach has helped steer me through the start up stage with energy and focus. Nikki introduced me to LBD at a retreat – a life changing presentation that connected me with the incredible network of LBD women. Julia Van Graas, Alicia Beachley, Sophie Waterhouse, Victoria Butt, Emily Verstege, Alison Flemming and of course Janine Garner – wow each of these women have donated time and talent to the cause. Julia is my secret weapon, she’s so experienced and so humble. I am thrilled beyond words to have Julia’s experience on KYUP! PROJECT Advisory Committee. There is an incredible team behind KYUP! Brand guru Glenn Chandler from Seek and Design, Alicia Beachley and her award winning agency April 5, is on board to manage our Dad’s and Daughters event this year and Heather Jones, PR Queen from Filtered Media and also on the committee.
JG: What advice would you give your 21 year old self?
MT: Lighten up Miss 21 and have a little faith. You have boundless love and appreciation for people , you just don’t know it yet. Date honourable men your own age. Give your heart away and love freely in relationships because it’s better to have a broken heart than not feel a thing. A stable, kind, loving husband is on the way and he will teach you that two wrongs don’t make a right – but just a little heads up – romance will be a whole lot less rocky and a tonne more enjoyable if you open up from the get go. Knock of the gossip and trust other women. Extend your friendship wholeheartedly and if it’s not returned learn from it – what was your part in the breakdown? Trust you are a good person and move on. Call mum more often and be kinder to her. She worries about you. While your at it don’t forget to say thank you for the thoughtful gifts and sweet little notes she sends. It really doesn’t take much to make her day. Spend more time with your nan. She is wise and no other human could love you more. Ask her more questions and believe her when she tells you your family is everything and girlfriend are a lifeline.
Let’s talk about self esteem. People genuinely love and care for you – but it’s not their job to boost your confidence. You will have to get real all by yourself. Good news – good things in life never run out and there is enough success to go around. Own your story and embrace your vulnerability. Don’t be afraid to travel, Pauline Hanson is an idiot, your vote counts and for the love of god, wrap your head around superannuation… future Mel would appreciate it. Above all stay curious and ask more questions. EVERYTHING WORKS OUT IN THE END.
JG: Well Mel – I reckon everything is working out well in the end and I thank you for never, ever giving up. You are definitely not running anymore and teaching all of us – and so many young girls to own their stories.