What it means to be a young leader

Submitted by Dan_Canteen on 11 Jan 2022
11 Jan 2022

Update: January 2022

Sean was named the ACT Young Australian of the Year in November 2021 in recognition of his incredible contribution to Canteen as a young leader. The national award will be announced on 25 January 2022.


By Sean Dondas, soon-to-be ex Canteen Board Director

I’m about to say goodbye to Canteen. Farewells can be sad, but in my case I feel a deep sense of fulfillment and gratitude.

I’ve been a Board Director at Canteen for six years. In that time I’ve provided oversight and governance for an organisation that has a rich tradition of listening to and empowering its young voices. I am honored to be one of them.

My journey at Canteen started when my mum relapsed with cervical cancer in 2007. The first program I attended was the first time in my life I truly felt like I belonged.

When Mum passed away in September 2009, after years of chemotherapy, radiotherapy and eventually hospice care, Canteen and the friends I made became my family. Soon after, when I was just 16 years old, I became a ward of the state and was placed into foster care. During that time, Canteen provided the stability that helped me finish school and get through the tough times I faced.

Canteen not only provided me with life-changing support but let me take a glimpse at the person I could be. I became involved in Canteen’s leadership program, and from there I felt like I was kicking goals. I was able to see my value and it motivated me to move forward with my life, despite all the tough times.

Yes, youth leadership at Canteen is about providing young people with age-appropriate support, but it’s also about taking that next step in personal development through a range of challenging opportunities (like public speaking and media interviews), and empowering young people to not just face their own challenges, but to help others.

I’ve heard people say that Canteen is incredibly innovative by having five of its nine Board positions filled by young people – I agree. But I also think it’s logical and quite right that young people have a seat at the table and drive outcomes for other young people who have been impacted by cancer. Listening to these voices and amplifying them can cut through all the other noise when you’re trying to advocate for things like better cancer care outcomes.

Canteen’s leadership program isn’t an ‘added extra’ – it’s a critical investment in building the pathway to resilience and coping skills that will last us for the rest of our lives.

I’m looking forward to what lies ahead for me and I know that whatever challenges are thrown up, I’ll be able to adapt and evolve to overcome obstacle after obstacle. Because that’s what Canteen taught me.

Watch this space.

Sean Dondas is a Policy Officer at the Attorney-General’s Department in Canberra.