Australian cricketer Ashleigh Gardner is a true difference-maker on the pitch. Now she’s using her platform to create a brighter future for First Nations students.

Gardner tirelessly trains in the cricketing nets day after day. The 25-year-old allrounder has scored runs against some of the world’s top bowlers and taken important wickets for her team. Her sporting career has taught her that even the little things can make a big difference. And while she isn’t trained to teach children how to read, write and do maths, that’s not stopping her from striving to make a difference in her community.

“I think it’s really important to use my platform as a sportsperson to bring awareness to these education issues in the Indigenous community,” Gardner says. “It’s so important for me to have a tangible impact on First Nations youth and inspire them to achieve their goals and foster a more positive lifestyle.” 

According to the NSW government, in 2021 just 43% of NSW Aboriginal students attained their HSC. And the Indigenous Literacy Foundation says there’s a 2.5-year gap between the literacy rates of non-Indigenous and Indigenous children.

In 2019, Ashleigh set up the Ashleigh Gardner Foundation (AGF) to address some of the systemic issues that impact First Nations children and to better support their well-being and improve their learning experiences. She’s hoping to launch the foundation’s breakfast club program in May 2023. The idea is to provide students a solid foundation for learning. 

“It’s all about encouraging kids to come to school,” she says. “I found there’s a lot of disadvantaged children go to school hungry. If they don’t have food, they’re not going to have the energy to concentrate in class. 

“This way they can get a nice, delicious breakfast and some snacks to have throughout the day to fuel their learning.”

Ashleigh grew up in Bankstown, in south-west Sydney. The proud Muruwari woman considers herself lucky to have had a strong base for her education. But she says some of her cousins didn’t have the same opportunity.

“Seeing and hearing about that in my own family really makes me think about how a program like ours could have impacted their lives,” Ashleigh says. “I just wonder how their lives would have been different with something as simple and normal as having breakfast every day.”

Read more: How Amy Jones transitioned out of the pool and into business.

Selecting her team to form the Foundation

Ashleigh knows the power of teamwork, which is why she knew she needed a strong group around her to turn the AGF from an idea into reality. The foundation’s board currently consists of her, Cricket NSW’s Erin Lorenzini and Ashleigh’s manager.

Learning to gather – and trust – the right people has been one of the most important learnings for Ashleigh thus far. That, and being patient.

“I’m a cricketer at the end of the day,” Ashleigh says. “Setting up a not-for-profit isn’t something I’m used to doing. One of the challenges is that you rely heavily on others to give you their time, and more importantly their help. I’ve learned how important it is to be patient and lean on experts who have the same goals for the foundation as I do.”

She credits Erin, who at the time was the Player Development Manager for Cricket NSW, with motivating Ashleigh and her teammates to formally develop their leadership skills. It was Erin who introduced Ashleigh to AGSM @ UNSW Business School Short Courses back in 2019.

“I’d always had an idea that I wanted to try to help First Nations kids, but completing those AGSM Short Courses really got the ball rolling,” Ashleigh says. “One of the questions in one of the courses was if we’d ever thought about starting our own business or NFP. And when I spoke to Erin about it, she was the one who really encouraged me to have a go.” 

Ashleigh Gardner Foundation

Ashleigh completed three leadership short courses online – Leading ChangeLeading with Resilience and Leading an Organisation in Dynamic Environments. She also did the Cricket NSW Executive Leadership Development Program – a bespoke program created in collaboration between Cricket NSW and AGSM. 

“Before I started, I didn’t know the first thing about starting a foundation,” Ashleigh says. “But those courses gave me a sense of everything that goes into it and who you need to have on your side. People who know about funding and accounting and legal – and then also the importance of sharing your vision with them to keep everybody working toward the same goal.”

Read more: Erin Lorenzini is developing the future of sports leadership.

Getting from pilot to state-wide program

Last year, Ashleigh met with a school in Dubbo in Western NSW to establish it as the  pilot school for the breakfast club program. She’s hoping to launch it there next year.

The AGF team is currently focused on finding funding partners to help get the AGF off the ground – and in position to expand to schools around the state. The group is also trying to nail down the finer points of what the day will look like. This includes finding volunteers for the program and sorting out the legal aspects of working with children at schools. 

But the demanding schedule of an international cricketer can make it hard. To continually perform at the highest levels of world sport takes dedication and time. Ashleigh is on the road three to four months a year – sometimes more. But instead of looking at her career as a roadblock, she views it as an opportunity.

“If I’m playing good cricket that gets my name out there more, ultimately it could have a really great impact on the foundation and the lives of these kids,” she says. “It can help bring more brands on board to not only sponsor me as a player, but also help me on this mission to help my community.”


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