Airlie Davis
Airlie Davis

Last week, on International Women’s Day, the OBE Organic team hosted Airlie Davis, a sixteen-year-old high-school student from Mount Alvernia College, for her very first day of work experience. This isn’t just any student. Airlie is unique. She’s a para-athlete, about to embark on her first world international competition with intellectual disabilities, at the 2023 Virtus Global Games in Vichy France. 

As an SME agribusiness in an ecosystem worth billions of dollars to our economy we’re calling on our peers to consider how Australian exporters can collectively support para-athletes like Airlie Davis. These athletes have courage and character, but there is limited funding to support them at these games. Sport Inclusion Australia have Deductible Gift Recipient status, which means that all donations of $2 or more are tax deductible. Going for Gold and Glory at GG2023 (

Airlie was born prematurely at thirty-five weeks. It wasn’t until she was four years old when she was initially diagnosed with some traits on the autism spectrum. People more easily identify with the term ‘mild autism’. Some of these traits include being very sensitive to sounds, smells and different tastes. She is tactile and hence very sensitive to different materials, clothing and temperature. She’s been described as having ‘no filter’ and can easily offend people because of her direct speech and questions, which can appear immature for her age for what would be considered typically appropriate behaviour for a sixteen-year-old teenage girl. 

I’ve known Airlie all her life and Airlie has known of OBE Organic all her life. We have much in common. Her Mum, Catherine Davis, is one of my best friends. We’ve known each other for over 35 years. We met in year eight at boarding school in South Australia. Cathy was sent there by her parents from a sheep station near Broken Hill and I was sent from Birdsville in outback Queensland. 

Airlie Davis
Airlie Davis

Airlie’s eaten plenty of OBE Organic beef over the years, when we visit her house for a BBQ. She’s visited Birdsville a few times too, watched the sun set over Big Red and she has even attended the Birdsville Races. 

I’ve been on the other end of the phone each time Airlie has ended up in hospital with a dislocation or break to one of her bones. She’s hyperflexible and lacks muscle tone which explains her two knee dislocations, right and left. 

When she was eleven, Airlie was diagnosed with idiopathic scoliosis. I spent the day with Cathy in Brisbane, whilst Airlie underwent major spinal surgery which included bone fusion and the insertion of two rods and eighteen titanium screws in her thoracic spine. 

Airlie Davis

Earlier this year, I wondered where Airlie would be doing her work experience and if OBE Organic could help. I remember fondly my work experience in year eleven, in 1991, with a medical doctor.

One thing led to another and before we knew it, we had offered Airlie a work placement in our business. We learned it would fit in perfectly with Airlie’s Queensland Certificate of Individual Achievement and Certificate II in Skills for Work and Vocational Pathways which she is completing in Year 11 and 12. We had reviewed Airlie’s learning goals and signed an official Work Experience Agreement with the Queensland Government Department of Education.

Behind the scenes, I was a bit worried, I asked our Administration Manager, Kim Stalley to complete a ‘Risk Assessment’ for our business. I worried about how many accredited First Aiders we would

have in the office on the day she visited and googled ‘How to use an EpiPen’ since Airlie is allergic to nuts. I called Airlie’s Learning Enhancement and Support Teacher at her school and asked, ‘What can we ask Airlie to do’? I briefed our team and asked everyone to avoid bringing nuts into the office on that day. I also asked them to prepare some tasks for Airlie.

What I didn’t realise was that Cathy, Airlie’s Mum, was also getting organised. Unbeknownst to me, she had done some reconnaissance on our office in Brisbane city, the day prior. She had planned where she would park the car and had walked to our building, to ensure ‘no surprises’ the next day.

What you have to understand about Cathy is that she is super-organised, necessarily so and I’m the opposite. So it came as no surprise on the morning of Airlie’s first day of work experience with OBE Organic, Cathy was half an hour early and I was twenty minutes late.

We had arranged for her first day with us, to start with a business breakfast at Victoria Park Golf Club, hosted by the Ethnic Communities Council of Queensland. I hadn’t fully appreciated what this would mean for Cathy. In the notes she kept of her time with us, Airlie wrote that she was woken up at 4.45am and left home at 5.45am. She arrived at the venue at 6.30am for a 7am start. The room was filled with 250 women from culturally and ethnically diverse backgrounds and I think Airlie was the youngest by a long shot. I asked her to write some thoughts on the event and share opportunities for improvement. She wrote:

  • Lots of women
  • To many speakers
  • Add more breaks
  • Add some dancing
  • Fruit was good
  • Liked the rafal tickets
  • Fiona won a prize
  • Meeting new people
Airlie Davis

After breakfast, Airlie attended an appointment with a Sports Dietician. As a para-athlete, she needs a food plan. She’s a fantastic swimmer & has been picked for her second Australian Team, this time to swim at the 2023 Virtus Global Games in Vichy, France. She flies out 1 June and returns 13 June. Airlie swims in the S14 class. S14 swimmers have an intellectual impairment.

Her notes record her arriving at our office at 11.45am however she didn’t walk through our front door at that time. It was another ten minutes before she entered. Little did we know that Airlie has an aversion to loud noises, not just for the noise but for drawing attention to herself and feeling embarrassed hence anxious about pressing the doorbell. No amount of encouragement from her Mum could get her to ring it. If only we knew that noise matters a lot to people like Airlie, we could have made a plan.

It was important to us that she felt like one of our team, so we organised for her to have a notebook and title, ‘Junior Administration Assistant’.

Airlie Davis

During the afternoon, we organised a virtual meeting with our export customer in Vietnam. We introduced Airlie at the start of the meeting and then she sat just off camera. I asked her to take some notes while Fiona Wan and I interacted with our customer. The meeting was conducted in broken English. Their English was alot better than our ability to communicate in Vietnamese. 

Airlie Davis

At the end of the meeting and after the camera was turned off, Airlie asked Fiona if she was Japanese. Fiona explained that she wasn’t Japanese, she was Chinese. Airlie responded innocently with, ‘That’s why you understood what they were saying, I didn’t understand anything.’ Fiona smiled sweetly at Airlie and said, “I didn’t understand the whole conversation either Airlie, but I just smile and nod when that happens”. 

Airlie logged this meeting in her notes at 1.30pm describing it as; Listing to them in Vatnames talking to each other. As we were leaving the meeting room, Airlie told me that I had bad handwriting, because she couldn’t follow the notes I was writing during the call. 

Airlie Davis

Later Airlie noticed some butcher paper nearby and asked if she could draw a map of Australia. She drew each state the same size and coloured each with a different coloured pen. Queensland was no bigger than the Northern Territory. Birdsville even got a mention! 

Her picture got me thinking. To Airlie, do we all look the same? Is it only us, who see people with a disability as different when compared to the average? Since Airlie’s visit last week, I’ve found myself quoting Airlie to friends and sharing the insights I learned from her. These learnings are different for all of our team members who interacted with her. Over a few hours, we connected with Airlie and saw our office, through her eyes. 

I’ve realised that Airlie’s work placement with OBE Organic is not about what Airlie will learn from us, it is about what we will learn from Airlie. I recognise that I was so focussed on managing the risks of Airlie’s placement with us, that I hadn’t thought of the opportunities. 

As Salman Rushdie once wrote, ‘The broken mirror may actually be as valuable as the one which is supposedly unflawed’. 

At the end of the day, I asked Airlie to write down her first impressions of OBE. She wrote; 

  • Scary
  • About the doorbell being loud
  • Uniform I like

We’ve already planned Airlie’s next visit to our office in mid-April. She’ll be joining Fiona and myself on customer visits in Brisbane and she’ll be wearing an OBE Organic uniform, so she’ll look just like us. I’ll be thinking ahead about doorbells and I’ll be trying to write a little neater in my notebook! 

Please show your support for para-athletes like Airlie Davis and donate here Going for Gold and Glory at GG2023 (

By Dalene Wray

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