The annual perpetual KU Marcia Burgess Award is given to an individual KU staff member or team of people who have demonstrated a strong commitment to the inclusion of vulnerable children and families or children with additional needs.

The award is named in honour of Marcia Burgess, one of KU’s trail-blazing luminaries of social inclusion and child wellbeing. Marcia’s leadership in this area spanned her 50 years of service with KU.

While she sadly passed away in June 2007, Marcia continues to be recognised for her significant contribution to KU, the early childhood sector and the lives of the thousands of children she touched.

Karen Penfold – 2021 KU Marcia Burgess Award recipient

Karen Penfold, Director at KU Randwick Coogee Preschool, was the recipient of this prestigious award in 2021 for her demonstration and deep understanding of the responsibility for children's wellbeing.

Karen has made a sustained and positive impact on children’s lives and works collaboratively with the KU Child Wellbeing Team and the Department of Community and Justice to achieve successful outcomes for the protection and wellbeing of children. Faced with a particularly difficult child wellbeing issue in 2020, Karen showed strength and resilience in advocating for vulnerable children and was a catalyst in ensuring that child was placed in a safe and trusting environment.

We talked to Karen about what it meant to her to be recognised for her achievements with this special accolade and hope you enjoy reading this Q&A.

What did it mean to you to win the 2021 KU Marcia Burgess Award?

It meant so much to me because I had known Marcia Burgess and her commitment to working with disadvantaged families and children in the community. As an early educator, I work with groups of children as well as many children with additional needs in our preschool. I also recently worked on a TV program with four-year-olds, where a child was put in a vulnerable position. I was pleased that I was able to assist that child because of the skills I’d gained from working at KU. To be acknowledged with this Award was very special. It made me feel that the work I do is important.

Can you tell us about the work that prompted your nomination for this award?

I can’t speak in detail, but I was placed in a situation where I had to make some serious decisions for the wellbeing of a child and their family. I needed do the right thing. It was a difficult situation, and I was grateful that I had the backing of KU along with people to call on to support me with the knowledge and skills I needed in order to follow correct procedure. As a Director and an advocate for children, having a support network has been really valuable. It means I can do what I love - be part of team and do my best every day with the lives of children.

Has winning this award motivated you further in your work?

Oh, absolutely. I’ll never stop learning and listening to the children, families and staff and giving them their voice. We’re on a journey to help each other get to the next step in life and so listening is a critical part of this process. If we can work together in this way, I think it’s an amazing achievement for everybody. And that is what we try and practice each and every day.

What are some of the most important things about being an early educator?

Every child is an individual and we give them the respect they deserve to be treated as such. We have 137 children who attend the preschool, two to three days a week and not always consecutive days. We make adjustments each day, talking with the children on their level and supporting them get to the next step in their lives.

I think the most important thing is hearing and seeing what's happening with the child, with the family, and with the staff. Working together to get the best outcome for the family and the child. We have some children that come in that have never been in care before - they have never been apart from their families and so the hand over in the morning is very important.

It’s about the relationships you build with families who are trusting you to care for their child helping them to understand that their child may need a little bit of extra help, demonstrating how we support the family, and observing and listening to what's going on for the child. Sometimes we need to consider if a child needs a health assessment or speech therapy. I believe that it's our role as early educators and mandatory reporters to listen to the families, but also if we see something to act on it and try and get the child the help that they need.

If we notice something about a child, that they are having difficulties - we are there for them. It’s as important not to ignore these signs as much as it is to continue to support them so when they leave KU, we know we’ve done the best job we can to give them the ability to get to the next step. Knowing they've had the support before they leave to start school makes us feel like we've done our job.

How long have you worked for KU?

Next year will be 30 years! I started my first job as a childcare worker at KU Laurel Tree House in Sydney’s CBD in 1986. Then I left, went to university and worked in a few different playgroups in inner city suburbs, Surry Hills and Redfern. In 1993 I came back to KU and worked at the service in Ashfield.

I meet Marcia Burgess at KU James Cahill in Waterloo. That was a really interesting and diverse service. I mean, all services are diverse now, but it was back in the 90s and a little different to what it is now. I've been at KU Randwick Coogee Preschool since 2000. I have loved all the KU services I’ve worked in, learnt so much, and still learn something new every day. I’ve made wonderful connections with many people who I can rely on and call if I need support to talk through an issue.

For a full list of the 2021 Making ‘the KU Difference’ Award winners, visit

KU’s Statement of Commitment – Child Safety and Wellbeing

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