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Curtin University
John Curtin Day
John Curtin Medallists

John Embling and Heather Pilcher (2001)

John Embling and Heather Pilcher have devoted the last 25 years to helping young people who are victims of homelessness, drugs, racism, abuse and violence. Their vision for providing abandoned and alienated children with opportunities has made a huge difference to the lives of a generation.

Both John and Heather have shown selfless leadership. John trained and worked as a teacher of remedial English at a technical college in Melbourne, where he encountered adolescents, victims of abuse and neglect, who had minimal reading skills. Heather had already spent 10 years working with street kids when she met John in 1975. Impressed with her work, John decided to give up his paid teaching position to work with Heather in a bid to provide alternatives to children who might otherwise end up on the streets.

The early years of working together were extremely difficult. They had no income to support their work until John’s first published success, a story recounting his struggle to help a young student. John wrote his first book in 1978, entitled Tom: A Child’s Life Regained, describing how he battled, as a young schoolteacher, to save the life of an angry, brutalised young boy. The book was an overnight success and not only provided financial assistance but also the publicity and promotion needed to raise awareness of their ongoing project. In 1985 John completed Fragmented Lives: a darker side of Australian life, describing the Australia experienced by less fortunate members of our community.

As part of their community service work, John and Heather have established Families in Distress, a Foundation which provides emotional support for those in need, as well as comfortable accommodation for up to 10 children who would otherwise be living on the streets. Broadcaster and media identity Phillip Adams is a trustee of the Foundation and a champion of its cause; donations from readers of his columns have provided up to 90 percent of the money used to support the Foundation.

John and Heather have encountered many personal obstacles in undertaking their work, with both suffering attacks from gangs. John has also been beaten, stabbed and deliberately run down. The years of working 18 – 20 hours a day, in such difficult circumstances, have taken their toll, and both John and Heather have suffered very poor health in recent years. Despite this, they continue their commitment to improving the lives of homeless children. They have made many sacrifices and continue to battle against the odds to fulfil their vision for a better community.