Adam Goodes with children at the Waranwarin Early Learning Centre in Campbelltown. Photo: Janie Barrett The AFL great, pictured at Waranwarin, is now focusing his attention on closing the Indigenous literacy gap. Photo: Janie Barrett
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Goodes retired in September and now has time to work towards reconciliation as an ambassador for David Jones department stores. Photo: Janie Barrett

Adam Goodes is in “giving back” mode.

A two-year-old is sharing her neon pink paint with him as the paper in front of them quickly becomes a smudgy jumble of colour. Next, the Australian Football League great and 2014 Australian of the Year will read Dear Zoo to the class, his stature dwarfing his cross-legged audience.

“To be honest I’m enjoying it,” the former Sydney Swans captain says of his newfound freedom from the rigours of the game. “I love being out, not training, not playing, not dedicating 90 per cent of my time to that.

“I definitely don’t miss being told where to be, what to wear, how long you are going to have to be there for.”

Instead, he has more time for mornings like this, meeting the children and staff at Waranwarin Early Childhood and Family Centre at Tharawal Aboriginal Corporation in Campbelltown, in Sydney’s south west.

After 18 years of professional football, Goodes, 36, is focusing on challenges that he believes are more pressing than the code. With numeracy and literacy standards in his sights, he is working to close the Indigenous literacy gap that leaves Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children across Australia three times less likely to reach the national minimum standard for reading and writing.

Today, he is witnessing efforts by The Australian Literacy and Numeracy Foundation (ALNF), which is training 12 teacher aides at Waranwarin, giving them the specialist tools needed to help raise educational standards of pre-schoolers. His visit is no small event and, even in the privacy of the facility, Goodes is asked for a dozen or so selfies.

The Adnyamathanha and Narungga man left his career with minimal fanfare in September after finding himself the subject of a long and ugly run of racist slurs. He has no regrets over his quiet departure, he says, after washing paint from his hands, and got to “thank the real people” – all 38,000 of them – at the Sydney Cricket Ground in April.

“I’ve retired the way I’ve wanted to retire and I think that’s very rare in our industry. I’m not very ego-driven, I’m very happy with the way I went out. And I’d rather come here and see the people face-to-face and actually get to thank them for their support and love.”

The David Jones ambassador will read to children at the department store’s Elizabeth Street headquarters in Sydney on Sunday, the first of an eight-day campaign during which 10 per cent of all book sales will be donated to the ALNF as part of its reconciliation plan.

While Goodes has his own educational foundation, providing scholarships for 17 boys and girls to attend private schools in Sydney, his broader aim is to support and tell the stories of community champions, whom he calls “the real heroes out there.”

He has plans of a “really big family” with his fiancee Natalie Croker, a TV producer with whom he lives with in North Bondi, but is for now buried in “tough” wedding plans. With 100 cousins, Goodes has always had a strong connection with children – including those he has never met.

“There are kids out there named after me,” he says, referring to remote Australia’s love of AFL, another possible avenue into helping raise awareness of education in Indigenous communities.

A third of Waranwarin’s 76 children are in out-of-home care, and an equal number have early development issues. Bringing them on par with their non-Indigenous counterparts before they reach school age is, Goodes says, key to their futures.

“It’s a problem they’ll have with them their whole life if we don’t do something about it,” he says, before sitting down to practice name writing with four-year-olds.

“Can you help me?” he asks the three children. “What letter does Adam begin with?”

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