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Drama, dreams and determination

Jess Norris
Published Tuesday 21 June 2016
  • Child Care, Youth and Families

If you ask Jess Norris what she’s been doing with herself lately, don’t expect a typical answer – unless your definition of ‘typical’ for an 18 year old is studying full time, starring in a major musical production and working, all while spending time with her friends and foster carers and living independently at Wesley Mission Queensland’s Logan Youth Foyer Support Service.

Jess just finished the successful run of Harvest Rain’s Hairspray Arena Spectacular as one of the 900-strong cast – helping to set the world record for the largest cast of ‘nicest kids in town’ ever to perform Hairspray anywhere in the world.

Now that the show is finished, Jess is fighting the ‘theatre come down’ (an all-too-familiar and keenly-felt malady among theatre performers) while catching up on her studies with the New York Film Academy, where she is a full time student.

“Hairspray was an amazing experience,” says Jess. “Everyone was so lovely and supportive. It felt like being part of a wonderful, if massive, family! I miss it so much. I think I’ve watched the movie version of Hairspray about 8 times since our final show. I can’t wait to audition for something else now.”

Jess has been performing since she was five years old and hopes to one day build a career in performing arts – but doing exactly what, she doesn’t know yet. It’s not like she doesn’t have options. On top of her current studies, the recent high school graduate already has a Certificate III in Children’s Services, a Certificate III in Performing Arts, a Certificate III in Event Management, and a Certificate II in Tourism. Oh, and she’s also an AUSTSWIM certified swim coach.

 “I didn’t have the best time at school,” says Jess. “I couldn’t handle being there five days a week, so I decided to sign up for some TAFE courses and spend one day a week studying there. It was really hard work – I would have to do my homework, study for my TAFE courses, complete work placements during my school holidays, and also work shifts at my casual job. But it was good. I want to be an actor, but I also want to keep my options open. I’m interested in so many things. Maybe I could be a band tour manager, or teach theatre to kids.”

Jess’s achievements are even more impressive when you consider the road she’s had to walk to earn them.

At the age of five she was placed into foster care, and spent the rest of her childhood in and out of foster homes. All up, Jess estimates she’s had around 24 different homes in her life. Some placements lasted for a period up to four years, some as little as two months.

“Growing up was tough,” says Jess. “I had some really hard placements where things were awful. I tried to run away several times. I never knew how long I would stay in a placement, and I never knew, if I was moved on, why. I have three younger brothers and for a while we were placed together, but it didn’t work out and we were always fighting. Eventually I was moved into another foster home by myself and it was much better.

“I went through a stage of being really negative when I was younger. I always saw myself as a victim. Making friends was really difficult. I always just expected people to leave me; I didn’t expect anyone to stay friends with me. My life was so different to the kids I went to school with. It was hard for us to understand each other.

“Then when I was about 15, I just decided that I didn’t want to be that way anymore. I didn’t want to go down a bad path or make bad decisions. So I made a conscious effort to be happy and start doing things for myself.”

Part of that decision for Jess meant standing on her own two feet and moving out of her foster home. She wasn’t getting along so well with her foster parents and she felt that she needed some space. She spent many hours in the councillor’s office at her high school, searching online for ways that she could move out on her own. Finally, a youth support worker told Jess about the Logan Youth Foyer.

The Logan Youth Foyer Support Service provides supported accommodation and case management for single youth aged 16-25 who are undertaking education, training or employment and who may be at risk of becoming homeless.

Jess did some research about the service, then put in an application for an apartment and met with the team. And one week before Christmas last year, Jess moved in.

“Moving here has been the best decision I’ve ever made,” says Jess.

“The team here have been so welcoming. Every week I meet with the support staff, who check in with me to see how I’m going. If I need anything, even if I’m just having a bad day and need to talk to someone, they’re always here for me. The location is great, too – it’s so close to everything, so that’s handy, and it’s a secure complex so I feel safe. And I’m looking after myself, which is important to me.

 “You really feel like you’re part of a little community. We have what we call ‘family outings’: activities like weekend camps or bowling. It gives us a chance to get to know each other.”

Not only has moving to the Logan Youth Foyer given Jess a sense of independence and responsibility, it’s also helped to improve her relationships with her family and friends. She still sees her foster family all the time, and she’s now regularly in touch with her younger brothers, who are still in the foster system.

“Now that I’m out of the system, I can look back I can see how it affected me both positively and negatively. I can see how it’s made me a better person; I’m resilient, I’m stronger and more adaptable to change. I’m still dealing with trust issues, but I’m happy with who I am and I’m looking forward to the future.”

And so, to that future – what’s in store for someone who has already achieved, and overcome, so much in life?

“I want to sign up for Camp America next year to be a camp councillor. Or maybe I’ll go overseas and be an Au Pair for a while. Maybe in Europe, maybe in the UK. I just really want to travel! Then, who knows? I’m still so young. I’ve got plenty of time to figure it out.”