The streets are wide in the small country town of Casino. People drive slowly down the main drag and wave at their friends. Just out of town, sleek black cattle graze in green paddocks, an unmistakable reminder of the town’s main industry and the reason for its famed annual festival, Beef Week.
It’s an unlikely place to start a career as a paediatric occupational therapist perhaps, but then again, perhaps not.
Born and raised in a close-knit Casino cattle farming family, Kristy Harris’ life followed the gentle rhythym of a country town. She got married, had two children and worked as an employment consultant in town for nearly ten years.
It was satisfying work when the outcome was good but there was something missing for Kristy. “Many people couldn’t get a job because they couldn’t study, or deal with life’s million little challenges. I was seeing all these people who were struggling but I felt I was looking at the end of the problem while I wanted to get in at the beginning of things,” she says.
When she found the occupational therapy (OT) degree at Southern Cross, she knew she had found her calling. She loved the idea of supporting people to do the things they want and need to do with their lives. “I was nervous after not studying for so long, so I did the [pathway] Preparing for Success course. It was perfect for me, I could dip my toe in and see if I could do it before uprooting the whole family… and then I did of course uproot the whole family! OT wasn’t offered at Lismore so we moved to the Gold Coast where I could study – it was a decision that changed my life.”
Kristy had another baby while she was studying, but with the support of the University, she was able to complete her studies full-time. In one of her first jobs as a graduate, she met her business partner, Bonnie. With their common passion for paediatric OT, it was a logical if daunting step to open their own business, now a successful Gold Coast-based mobile service called Empowered Kids, providing specialised paediatric occupational therapy.
“If there’s one thing I’ve learnt, it’s to think outside the square – there are lots of things that you can do with the knowledge you acquire in OT and you can create your own opportunities.”
With three daughters of her own now at school, Kristy’s days are spent working with children of all ages to overcome issues from general development, to sleep, play, eating and even social skills.
“The first step is working with parents and families. They can be quite stressed, they have come to see us because they can’t find answers elsewhere. We need to develop a strong relationship with trust and work as a team so they can implement the therapy strategies we put in place.”
A lot of that therapy uses simple everyday items and Kristy’s car boot is bursting with plastic buckets filled with balls, playdough, bubbles and even straws. “Kids engage through play – it’s clinical and creative at the same time. People don’t realise how much thought goes into all the different ways we use Twister and connect4!”
Kristy embodies a new generation of university graduates – carving her own path with determination and creativity, deeply connected to her origins but with an eye always on the horizon.
She is also the first in her family to go to university. “I didn’t really notice it until my Nan mentioned it, but now three of my cousins have gone too,” she says. She may not feel like a trailblazer, but her work is making a difference to the lives of children and families every day, including her own.
“My biggest inspiration is my girls. When they saw me graduate, I hope that was a lesson they’ll always remember: if you want to do something, then do it! Don’t doubt yourself. There are so many ways to get there.”
Photo: Regi Varghese