As a premiership-winning player and coach, Ricky Stuart is a rugby league legend whose passion for the game is palpable on the sidelines each week.
But it was his passion for his family that led the Canberra Raiders coach to create another of his treasured achievements, the Ricky Stuart Foundation.
The Foundation’s purpose is to raise awareness and support for families of children with autism.
Ricky’s daughter, Emma, has autism, a developmental condition that impacts the way a person interacts and communicates. It can create sensory sensitivities as well as restricted and repetitive interests and behaviours.
How it started
The genesis of the Foundation came from an unlikely place. “We fell into a little bit of a scene in a McDonald’s restaurant where Emma threw a milkshake,’’ Ricky says.
“There were stories being told, people looked at her as though to say she was a spoilt girl. But no one understood or knew what these autistic children go through.’’
Ricky and his wife Kaylie had navigated a complex system to have Emma diagnosed. Ricky realised his profile could help bring some more awareness to the struggles of so many other families of children with autism.
The first step was a national interview and then the idea for a Foundation was born.
“The outcome was then going to be autism awareness and having the ability to raise some money for building respite centres. Over the last 10 years now, the Foundation has fundraised, developed and built two state-of-the-art respite houses in the ACT,’’ Ricky says:
- Ricky Stuart House (respite for children aged 5-12) opened in 2016
- Emma Ruby House (respite for teenagers and young adults aged 13-18) opened in 2018
Inspired by Emma
The arc of the Foundation has followed Emma’s life, with the Stuarts working to develop opportunities for young people with autism to live independently. The Stuarts helped Emma, then 21, move into her own place with full time carers in 2019.
In February this year, the Foundation announced it had received a $4 million grant from the New South Wales Government.
The grant will be used to develop a donated block of land into a state-of-the-art independent living home for young people with autism.
Building a strategy
Although they started the Foundation in 2011, it was not until 2019 that Chief Executive Officer Miranda Garnett joined part-time. Miranda’s job is to help the Stuarts and the Board build a strategy to take the Foundation to the next level.
“[Ricky] recognised that there was a whole lot more they could do but he needed someone to keep everything running, to do a strategy,’’ Miranda says.
With the right frameworks and a strategy now in place, the Foundation is stepping up its efforts to build its brand and, with it, awareness about autism.
In 2022, the Foundation will:
- Formalise a partnership with Autism Awareness Australia
- Begin a local campaign to raise autism awareness in ACT schools
- Partner with cycling brand Rapha Australia for a charity cycle ride in June
A new online home
A key part of the Foundation’s brand strategy and awareness efforts has been the creation and launch of the Foundation’s new website .
Miranda says its first website was built without a clear purpose and it soon became apparent it had limitations.
“In the last three years, I’ve had two opportunities to convert on partnerships. But we were unable to leverage that because when people looked at our old website it didn’t tell our story, it wasn’t professional, it didn’t capture who we were and why you should invest with us,’’ she says.
“It didn’t provide them the assurance that we were a quality brand.’’
A “super fun” website build
After being unable to find a satisfactory quote for a new website, Miranda was connected with the GoDaddy team through GoDaddy Australia’s Managing Director, Tamara Oppen, who is also a parent of a child living with Autism. Through her own lived experience, Tamara could identify with the purpose of the Foundation. She offered to support the build of the new website through GoDaddy’s Empower initiative, a program where GoDaddy employees volunteer their time to help worthy projects.
“[Web design] is absolutely not my skill set at all and working with the GoDaddy team has been super fun,’’ Miranda says.
“I’ve really enjoyed it. My skills are very basic in this area. I don’t understand the complexities, but they made it really simple for me and really easy.
“They were not only assisting with the look and feel of the website, but also to create an efficient back end to minimise my time [maintaining it].”
The result is a website that enables the Foundation to:
- Build its bona fides
- Showcase its corporate partners
- Accept online donations
“It was really important that we had the ability not only to provide a professional look but, also to capture who we are and what we’ve achieved,’’ Miranda says.
The next level
For Ricky, the new website is “unbelievable” and marks an important milestone for the Foundation in building on its advocacy and educational work.
“So many people say to me ‘have you got a website?’ Now I can proudly say ‘bang, go to this’ and you know it’s professional.
“Years ago, we had people saying ‘you know your website is just so outdated’ and I was embarrassed.
The GoDaddy website is going to take us to another level, I can just see it.
While the Foundation isn’t looking to expand across Australia, it has committed to sharing its design work and blueprints for the respite centres to support families and individuals nationally.
Ricky’s next priority is generating an education program to help young children understand how to communicate with a person with autism or a disability.
“Instead of bullying being part of life, let’s learn how we can communicate with these people,’’ he says.
“That project again is something that creates so much passion for me.”
With his trademark passion, drive and a willingness to go for it, Ricky Stuart has created an organisation that’s impacted hundreds of lives and put the NRL legend and his Foundation in a league of their own.