FROM THEN TO NOW
Laura Thompson (Gunditjmara) and Sarah Sheridan (non-Indigenous) met working together in preventative health at the Victorian Aboriginal Health Service (VAHS), back in 2014. With a Masters in Public Health under her belt, Laura was the manager of the Healthy Lifestyle Team and Sarah had freshly graduated with a Bachelor in International Development/ Public Health.
The pair quickly realised they shared a love of taking on new challenges, creating health promoting environments and cheering people on to be their most well selves — physically, emotionally and spiritually. Together they grew the VAHS Healthy Lifestyle Team from strength to strength.
Despite their many shared passions, before crossing paths, Laura and Sarah’s upbringings couldn’t have been more different! Laura grew up amongst the uprising of Community Control in a staunch Gunditjmara family and in the Koorie Community in and around the Collingwood flats. Contrastingly, Sarah grew up on a farm in a very small country town called Donald in regional Victoria. Regardless of this, it has been the strengths in their differences and the way they work as a team to fiercely pursue impact and unite people that has made for an incredible working relationship.
Laura and Sarah were excited to partner and start a business together that combined their experiences, skillsets and energy. Spark Health Australia was launched on New Year’s Day, 2018 focusing on Aboriginal Community engagement in health and wellbeing in Victoria. With the announcement of the new enterprise came a singlet and a hoodie as part of the merchandise arm, called ‘Spark Merch’.
The merchandise, featuring Aboriginal artwork by Laura, created a sense of team change to a sense of connection and belonging. Using merch as an incentive was an integral piece of Community participation and retention in our Aboriginal health and wellbeing programs. It was also a step towards self-determination and the dream of one day being financially independent and moving away from traditional funding models.
After successfully growing Spark Health from the broom cupboard at Fitzroy Stars Football Club, whilst running the junior club, with zero funding or starting capital, Laura and Sarah were eventually able to move in to their first office on High Street, Preston (above Rent-A-Bomb!). Meanwhile, Spark Merch continued to take shape.
Walking alongside and encouraging people as they prioritised their health and wellbeing by using an entertaining and high energy approach, saw Laura and Sarah work with Community right across Victoria. There was even a time when Laura and Sarah were dressing up in character on a weekly basis, running a health promotion gameshow called ‘Spark Feud’!
This element of fun and play engaged and retained hundreds of Aboriginal people across a range of exceptional programs such as: the six-week wellbeing program, ‘I Dare Ya!’; tackling Kokoda in the SOLID program; or embracing ‘Ngarrimili’, an Aboriginal women’s health and happiness project.
The unique style of Community engagement saw Spark Health work with a range of partners, including the Wathaurong Aboriginal Corporation, Kirrip Aboriginal Corporation, Ravenhall Correctional Centre and the EJ Whitten Foundation. This breadth of work was widely recognised for its impact and difference, with the ‘Wellah Weekend’ project a finalist in the VicHealth Awards in 2019. With a tiny team, and programs across the state, the commitment to Community health and wellbeing was second to none.
Early in the piece, Sianna Catullo (Narungga) volunteered at Spark Health whilst studying public health. She was quick to find her feet in supporting Community programs and thrived in the innovation of delivering Community health differently. It was clear from the beginning that Sianna was the more stylish one of the trio, and began experimenting with the look and feel of Spark Merch to test a new range of tees that could appeal to a wider audience for every day wear.
Little did the team realise, but health promotion and motivating Communities to strive towards positive health behaviour change, was the perfect training ground for marketing a tee with the purpose to influence social change.
Key elements that underpin best practice in health promotion communication were transferred from Spark Health programs to the merch arm. These became the framework of encouraging brand supporters to think about the power of a purchase — how a tee, when worn with purpose, could create meaningful conversations.
It’s a bit of long story but, with the brand name change from Spark Merch to Clothing The Gap (CTG) in 2019 and now Clothing The Gaps, the brand vision became clearer.
Today, Clothing The Gaps is an Aboriginal social enterprise street wear label managed by health professionals who are experimenting in fashion and using business as a vehicle to fund health promotion initiatives in Aboriginal Communities. Clothing The Gaps aims to help close the life expectancy gap between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.
With the world turned on its head as COVID-19 took hold, Spark Health was hit hard as the Aboriginal Community programs could no longer be delivered on the ground. The team, which now included Laura, Sarah, Sianna and Lena Charles, a Yorta Yorta and Gunai Kurnai public health professional, pivoted quickly to focus their energy on delivering programs via zoom and growing Clothing The Gaps in order to stay afloat, keep staff employed and Community connected.
Their efforts were concentrated into advocating to Free The Flag, creating great content, starting a virtual fun run series to keep people moving and making statement tees that sparked conversations.
Clothing The Gaps continues to grow beyond expectations, having now become its own entity separate from Spark Health and launching Aboriginal led not-for-profit, the Clothing The Gaps Foundation to continue the work of Spark Health.
In May 2021, Clothing The Gaps ticked over its first year of trading and celebrated in a new home on Wurundjeri Country in Brunswick. The building is a unique and safe Blak space and a hub of Aboriginal employment, specifically fitted out to hold the Foundation, a distribution centre and a destination retail store.
For Laura and Sarah, reflecting on VAHS, Spark Health and their partnership, whilst an average day may look a little different, the purpose and their goals have not changed — the drive to get out of bed every day is still to see Aboriginal Communities and individuals thrive.
It’s been an exhilarating and exhausting journey but made worth it by the support across the Aboriginal and non-Indigenous communities.
Here’s to more Aboriginal businesses, more social enterprises, more Aboriginal people self-determining their futures, and more conversations that lead to social change.