The Women At The Top

February 27, 2019

Manuela Whitford, Julia McKenna, Zoe Scharenguivel

The three executives responsible for growing and running Friends With Dignity came to the charity as a result of being touched by violence and the fear it engenders.

Manuela Whitford (Chief Executive Officer/Founder)

Manuela Whitford established Friends with Dignity at the Gold Coast in 2015  after moving to Australia from South Africa seeking a life where she no longer had to live in fear.

About two years before leaving family, friends and the place she called home,  Manuela was assaulted by eight men.

“Following this horrendous experience, I vowed I would never be a victim to such behaviour and promptly started making plans to immigrate,” she said.

“I had secured a job with Queensland Health working in the women’s prison system and immediately realised that as much as I escaped violence in South Africa which happened in public places, I was shocked to learn how many of the women in the prison system were seeking refuge from violence happening within their home – a place that I associate with safety, warmth and love.

“These women were committing crimes to escape.

“Violence of any form or manner is unacceptable, and I will not allow my experience to define me.

“I am committed to making a change to a behaviour that affects not only the victim but their family, friends, community and our society!”

Zoe Scharenguivel (Chief Operating Officer/Director)

Zoe Scharenguivel’s quest to help victims of domestic and family violence goes back to when she was a young stay-at-home mum in 2014.

“I was continually lighting candles at home to acknowledge the numerous women and children who were being reported on the news after being killed by domestic violence or under tragic circumstances,”she said.

“In early 2015, however, a personal connection of mine was tragically killed by her ex-partner resulting in not only her tragic death but also the death of her unborn baby as she was also 10 weeks pregnant.

“The extended grief I saw through my personal network of her passing really opened my eyes to the ripple effect domestic violence has on the community in general.

“I wanted to do something more than just light another candle and planned to organise a small lunch with a few of my girlfriends to raise some money to donate to an organisation in support of domestic violence prevention.

“The lunch quickly turned into something much bigger with a restaurant offering its entire venue exclusively for the lunch, the Queensland Police Service Domestic and Family Violence Prevention Unit providing an MC and an international illusionist offering to perform.

The lunch connected me with Manuela who was at the time the co-founder of Assist a Sista (an already existing Gold Coast charity organisation that co-ordinates donated goods to help survivors of domestic violence) and we formed a strong personal relationship built on a common goal to make a significant difference to families affected.

Julia McKenna (Chief Financial Officer / Director)

Julia said she had always had a social conscience, even growing up.

“During high school, I was President of our Amnesty International Club, and a volunteer in Sydney’s Bush Fire Brigade after the massive fires of 1993.

“Whilst living overseas, I helped raise funds for St Jude India, a charity helping children suffering from cancer.

“However career and family took the forefront of my life for many years, like it does for most people, and as a result I had less time to volunteer.

“That was until, while living in Singapore with my family, one of my family members, Allison Baden-Clay, was murdered by her husband. The very extreme of domestic violence.

“This was enough drive for me, that once we returned to Australia, I knew this was where I needed to focus my time and energies. No man, woman or child should ever face what Allison did.”

I happened across Assist a Sista on Facebook, which lead to me becoming a volunteer. After a time, I eventually met with Manuela and from there, agreed to help establish Friends With Dignity, and become a Board Member, Director and Chief Financial Officer.

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