By Sarah Collier

Each year Gardiner Foundation offers two places in the Gippsland Community Leadership Program to people living and working in Victorian dairy regions – on dairy farms, in dairy processing, as service providers or in community organisations. This is part of the Victorian Regional Community Leadership Programs (RLPs), designed to assist individuals to develop their leadership capacity and prepare them to transition into leadership roles.

Chris Slavin, who has owned her own business for sixteen years before working for Bassine Specialty Cheeses as a sales manager, was successful in gaining a spot in the program in 2022. She heard about the program from her manager, who suggested she apply. “It was great having the support of my workplace. Instead of having to approach them about it, they approached me. The program then helped link me up with Gardiner for the scholarship,” Chris said.

The leadership program embraces the diversity of the Gippsland region and its people, reflected in the learning spaces the program utilises and the subject matter that contributes to learning. Participants come from a variety of backgrounds and experiences. “There’s a lot of personal growth during the program and I think that’s what reflects in what you do every day. You get a lot of insight in how to help people and address difficult situations,” she said. “I absolutely loved the program. I was very nervous and didn’t think I was going to belong. I thought everybody else was miles ahead of me in their careers. But that’s not at all what it was about. It was fantastic getting to know everybody in their different stages of their leadership journey.”

Participants get divided into groups to complete a project of their choosing. “You develop really close bonds with your group members. There’s a real emphasis to being open to learning. Everybody throws themselves into it. It’s quite amazing. Mark, who ran the program, was very good at connecting us together and making you feel like you belong there,” Chris said.

Her team worked with Live4Life, a health education and youth suicide prevention model designed specifically for rural and regional communities. Live4Life communities deliver Teen and accredited Youth Mental Health First Aid training in schools and the wider community, create local partnerships to lead conversations about mental health that reduce stigma, and promote young leaders as mental health ambassadors.

Chris and her team organised a day for the young mental health ambassadors involved in the program to connect with each other, learn about mental health advocacy and bond as a cohort. “We’re all very passionate about doing something for kids so the event was a great fit for us. It was a challenge at times, but I also learned so much from it. It was a rewarding experience,” Chris said.

The day centred around connecting students from different schools to allow them to connect with each other in a fun, natural learning environment. “It was one of the only time’s they actually got to meet up,” she said. “We raised funds and coordinated the day ourselves. We also created the connections for Live4Life for the future. We provided the framework for the event and they’re hoping to run it every year.”

Representatives from the Youth Advisory Council Victoria and GippSport came out to speak on the day. “Year nine is a pivotal age group for mental health. It’s important to get kids involved early and almost every school in the two districts had kids attending. It was really pleasing to see how much they enjoyed participating in the workshops,” she said.

Chris is looking forward to using the skills she learned during the program. “The course taught me how to work with people to get the best outcomes. I’m hoping to adapt and use the skills that I’ve learned to enhance the business that I’m working in at the moment. I volunteer in my local community and I’m hoping to take on bigger roles now. I’m also looking into studying.”

“I’d recommend the program to anybody who has the opportunity to participate. The personal growth and the connections I made have been really rewarding,” she said. “I’m so grateful for the Gardiner sponsorship. I wouldn’t have been able to do it otherwise. It’s life changing.”

 For more information on the program please visit