Leonie's striving for the big picture to 'help close the gap'

[by Marc Barnbaum]

Leonie Johnston. Image: supplied

For most of her adult life, Leonie Johnston has been working as a de facto social worker, with a passion for helping Indigenous people who are struggling with drug and alcohol addiction and mental health issues.


Now she’s one step closer to becoming fully qualified and professionally recognised, thanks to a placement at the Salvation Army’s Townsville Recovery Services, as part of her Social Work (Honours) degree with CQUniversity.


Leonie was among inaugural recipients of the Northern Queensland Primary Health Network Social Work Scholarship, which provides funding to support CQUni Social Work students doing their field placement with an accredited non-for-profit organization specialising in alcohol and other drug issues.


The proud Indigenous woman learnt a lot about her Aboriginal culture from the Ngadjonji elders of the Malanda area, near Cairns, but she’s still disappointed that she left school at the end of Year 10.


“Back then it was not considered important for girls to gain an education and, as the oldest girl, I was expected to go into the workforce,” she says.


Due to her family moving to Mt Isa, Leonie’s first paid role was as a liaison officer for the local Healy State School, where she encouraged others to progress their education.

She then started a teaching degree but felt she did not have enough support to complete it.


Leonie continued with a range of roles, providing support and encouragement for Aboriginal people.


These included teacher aide roles, disability support roles, and roles with a mental health rehabilitation unit.



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“I went to remote communities to assess people and then brought them to the rehabilitation centre and then back to their community, sometimes months later, so I had to keep in touch with their community and set up meetings so they were not too homesick and had access to the skills, services and medications they needed longer-term,” she says.


Leonie is now pursuing her passion to become a fully-fledged social worker and acknowledges she may have to step aside from her busy volunteer roles on several community boards to see through the degree to completion.


The mum-of-three is also guiding her own children in the early stages of their own career journeys.


Her oldest daughter looks like following a similar path, as she is already a coordinator with the National Disability Insurance Scheme.


“One positive these days is that Indigenous people now have more health service options to help close the gap in life expectancy,” Leonie says.


“My pursuing my qualification as a social worker it will help me with the big picture of helping Aboriginal people to close the gap in all areas of their lives.”

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