Mid-week in a suburban mall on Sydney’s northern beaches and shoppers do a double take as they walk past a pop-up sunglasses stand.
A popular national television presenter and her retired footballer partner Matt Ballin – a local hero in these parts after delivering multiple premierships to the neighbourhood – are manning the counter.
School Sunnies Australia is finally operational to the public.
It’s a highly emotional pivot point for the business and its founder Alissa Smith, who somehow, has survived to take in this moment.
She’s a mixture of pride and nerves.
From concept to creation, this has been anything but smooth sailing.
One of Australia’s most notorious bikie gang leaders is the first to arrive.
But there’s little he can do.
He’s already twisted and contorted his hulking frame into the tiny sports car, but he’s equally as puzzled as he is helpless at that point.
19-year-old Alissa Smith is wedged between a steering wheel and her car seat which have jammed together like a sandwich press either side of her tiny athletic frame.
She’s upside down. And unconscious.
Blood is pouring from her mouth, ears and nose.
The car is filling with petrol and oil. It’s on its roof in a five-foot ditch outside a rural property in Sydney’s west.
“The car was so small and this guy was a big man so I don’t even know how he managed to get in,” Alissa recalls.
“But he couldn’t see me because of the way the car was positioned and how much damage there was.”
A second-helper lobs at the scene.
They hear a noise. A knocking sound. A shoe has fallen from one of Alissa’s feet.
The man goes back in to rescue her. There’s concern the car is about to explode any second now.
In time, Alissa is told of the conversation that takes place at that moment.
The second man who’d arrived wants to wait for help. He’s concerned about spinal injuries.
“What does it matter?” came the reply. “She’s dead anyway.”
Thousands of Australians wake up to Alissa Smith every day of the week.
As one of the hosts of Fox Sports News, her broad, infectious smile is a window into her positive demeanour and outlook on life.
There was, of course, a time when the future didn’t appear so bright. Few would have any sense of just how lucky she is to be sitting there on set.
“The only reason that guy came to find me was because his dogs had started barking and he wondered what all the noise was about. I was in a ditch so he wouldn’t have seen me,” Alissa said.
“But yeah, all things considered, I really should have been dead after that accident.”
She still can’t explain how things went so wrong.
It was just after 6am, on the 14th of December, back in 2010. It’s a Sunday. And, her Mother’s birthday.
At high school, she’d dreamt of being an actress and studied at NIDA. She was heavily invested in her dancing and had stars in her eyes.
“It’s a pretty tough industry to crack though and I knew I needed a back-up plan,” she said.
So, she qualified as a personal trainer and because of that, had a part-time job at a local gym.
“I was on my way to open up the gym. I’ve got no recollection of what happened or how it happened. The car flipped and rolled and ended up in a ditch on the side of the road.”
She was just 700 metres from home.
She sustained a fracture to her skull. One perilously close to her temple. Nerve damage too. Even now, 10 years on, she still has no feeling down one side of her face. Doctors are surprised it’s as minimal as that.
She suffered severe whiplash. A perforated ear drum meant she couldn’t be airlifted from the scene. And severe bleeding on the brain.
Her rescuers were right. It’s a miracle she survived.
Defying medical science is one thing. Moving on from it and enjoying a normal, healthy lifestyle is perhaps, an even greater challenge.
“For some reason the first person the police called was my Aunty. So she called my Mum and said look she’s alive but it’s not good. Go home and pack a bag because you might be here for a while,” Alissa said.
“I could walk, but couldn’t walk properly. I was told I’d never run again.”
“I had to learn how to build blocks again. I had to learn how to put sentences together.”
“I couldn’t be around loud noises. That ruled out the gym. And I couldn’t stand for long. 20 minutes at the most.”
“I tried dancing again but I couldn’t remember the moves. I couldn’t remember past the count of five. It was bad. Real bad.”
“I’d just be so tired and get exhausted so easily. I was sleeping for two days straight. I’d wake up on a Thursday and think it’s Tuesday still.”
Just prior to the accident she’d applied to study journalism at University. The offer came just as her recovery was beginning.
Special classroom assistance was offered up. Alissa refused. The brain could be retrained quicker she reasoned if it was made to work at full capacity.
In the first year after the accident, she attended more than 200 medical appointments.
Brain therapy training went on for two years.
She could barely remember anything from the previous six months.
“It was all pretty much just erased. Wiped out. But it’s weird what I did remember. I could recall being at the gym and there were these ladies there and they appeared to have it all. Great figures. They were in amazing shape and I said to my boss at the time, why are they here paying money for personal training because they didn’t seem to need it.”
“And he told me they’d been in an accident and it was rehab. For some reason I remembered that and in a way it felt like that memory was telling me that I can recover from this too.”
Within six months, she had returned for her second season as a snow reporter at Thredbo.
The main thrust of the job was standing in front of a camera and providing updates on the snow conditions for national television news bulletins. Most prominently, Channel TEN’s Sports Tonight. No autocue. Pure memory recall.
“What was strange was my every day memory was terrible. But my script memory was incredible. I could literally look at a two-minute script and just say my lines.”
Her presenting skills impressed the right people. She got a call from TEN’s news director offering her an opportunity to join the team back in Sydney once the snow season was over.
She worked on various projects, mostly behind the scenes. When TEN rolled out So You Think You Can Dance, Alissa’s background made her an obvious choice to join the crew.
Then came her big break. A move to Adelaide as a reporter for national kids program Totally Wild.
The seeds of a much broader life plan were about to be sown.
Earlier this week, Dianne Lindsay picked up yet another nomination in the prestigious Golden Guitar Awards.
They say she’s the lady born to sing. And it’s hard to argue that.
The daughter of country music luminaries Reg Lindsay and Heather McKean and the niece of the late great Slim Dusty, she grew up on the beaten track as part of the travelling stage show.
She saw first-hand the opportunity in being a self-made success. But more importantly, the hard-work and self-determination required to make a go of it on your own.
Key learnings passed down to her own daughter – Alissa Smith.
In between her music endeavours, Dianne Lindsay made ends meet by running a successful sunglasses business on the New South Wales Central Coast.
Her teenage daughter was her weekend sidekick.
“I’d go in and help out and Mum really empowered me to make some decisions around what stock we had in,” Alissa said.
“I knew the sizes. I knew the styles. It got to the point where I would go to Sydney, meet the manufacturers and source styles for the shop.”
“I would choose styles and looks for people for my age and Mum would be looking after the range for her age so it was a good little team we had going on.”
“Then I noticed we were selling a lot of kids glasses but the only options available weren’t of the same quality as adult glasses.”
“It got me thinking – why are kids eyes less important?”
Alissa poured time into researching the industry and the medical facts around eye health.
The statistics were alarming.
She soon realised that 80% of your lifetime damage to your eyes is done before you’re 18. But crucially, the greatest period of susceptibility is between the ages of 3 and 10.
“I thought that was shocking and wondered why anyone wasn’t doing anything to protect the younger generation,” she said.
“So I started looking into what was available. I was talking to manufacturers and suppliers.”
“I figured if there’s a problem, there’s a solution.”
“But I had all this self-doubt setting in. I thought well I’m not a teacher. I’m not a Mum. I’m not a doctor or a medical expert. No one will believe me so I kind of put it on the backburner.”
The car accident that nearly took her life, wasn’t long after that.
Totally Wild was launched in the early 90’s and helped introduce some of Australia’s most prominent media personalities to our television screens.
“It was such a fun show to work on and we got to do so many interesting stories. Kids are such a joy to engage with when you’re making television,” Alissa said.
“But it also reinforced something for me. My camera crew and I were out on the road all the time and we were wearing sunglasses. In fact we were told we should be wearing them as part of our workplace health and safety compliance.”
“But none of the kids we were seeing at places like schools and parks and sporting grounds were doing so and I guess from what I knew about the industry and the health statistics it just didn’t seem to make sense to me.”
“That really was the kick on I needed.”
So, with that lingering on her mind, Alissa re-visited her sunglasses “vision”.
She enrolled in a business entrepreneurs’ course through Business South Australia and registered her new company – School Sunnies Australia.
A year later she won a Small Business Entrepreneur Award.
“By then I’d moved from Totally Wild over to the TEN News desk and was reading the sport so things were really moving in the right direction with work and the recognition for School Sunnies Australia was just what I needed to keep the momentum going,” she said.
Half-measures weren’t an option.
An opportunity to move back to Sydney to take up a presenting role with Fox Sports News came up, but that wasn’t going to slow her plans for the sunglasses business.
She boldly decided to empty a savings account she’d accrued as a deposit on her first home and booked a trip to Hong Kong to attend an Optical Trade Fair.
“I used up all my annual leave. I thought well no one else is doing anything about this so why can’t I?”
It was sink or swim and I was prepared to fail. I just figured if I can help save one child’s vision long term then it’s worth it.”
Families are gathered at their weekend sporting event when a young lady approaches them with a random request.
She’s carrying sunglasses samples and is asking parents for permission for their kids to try them on.
“It must have been so strange for some of these poor people. I’m literally walking up to people to see if they’ll try my sunglasses on. It’s funny when I think back on it,” Alissa recalls.
“I needed a sample size. I needed to know what fitted kids. What worked. What was comfortable for them. What was safe. What looked good.”
And importantly, she needed a way into the school system. She decided that co-ordinating the colours with school uniforms was the best and probably most obvious solution.
“I went to a graphic designer and I got a copy of the pantone chart which basically had every variance of every colour imaginable on it,” she said.
“Then I went and researched all the different school uniforms and found that they were mostly navy blue, grey, bottle green and maroon so I was looking for the closest fit to each of those colours I could get in frames for the sunnies.”
“The idea was a small size for the little kids, a medium that would fit me and a large for the teachers.”
“They had to be wrap around to provide the right protection, the best UV lenses and be at a price point that school parents could afford.”
With a design settled on, Alissa commissioned her first batch of orders from suppliers overseas.
It didn’t go to plan. The previous few years had taught her plenty about obstacles and challenges. Some things, she reasoned, were just beyond her control.
“The first manufacturer was just about to go into production when an earthquake went through and all the moulds broke. So, I realised pretty quickly I needed a second supplier as a back-up, so in a different country altogether, they were just about ready to proceed when a typhoon hit them and broke all the moulds there too!”
“So it hasn’t been without its challenges and for a few years I’ve been absolutely haemorrhaging money but I am adamant it will all be worth it in the end.”
At that pop-up stand in the middle of Warringah Mall, a lady approaches Alissa with an idea.
Like Alissa, she too is a survivor.
But her story, is far more personal today. And it resonates with Alissa.
Everything she’s worked towards, now, all makes perfect sense.
“She had cancer of the eye. She got it when she was quite young and she said to me if I had this product available to me back then I would still have my eye today,” Alissa said.
“I basically cried when I was talking to her. It was quite emotional. I knew everything I have been through and everything I’m trying to achieve is all worth it.”
“If I lose everything, at least I tried.”
That day, optometrists came to say hello. Some have now joined the cause.
They had school teachers visit too. They’re now trying to get them as part of the everyday requirements for kids out in the playground.
There’s plans to provide them to schools to use for fundraiser initiatives – a bit like the old biscuit and lamington drives.
There was some negative feedback though.
“The only thing was we should be doing them in pink! It was good to hear. At least we know there’s a market out there,” Alissa said.
For so long, Alissa spent time pondering how she could go about getting this potentially health-saving product into schools.
It’s more about the concept than the merchandise. She just happens to the one trying to bring about change.
Alissa wants major sporting bodies, especially summer codes, to join the cause.
Now, at least, the Cancer Council appears to be taking notice.
So many of us grew up with the “slip, slop, slap” motto drilled into our thinking. Now there’s a fourth dimension that’s just as important. Slide.
Slip on a shirt. Slop on sunscreen. Slap on a hat. Slide on some sunnies.
“It’s been a lot of hard work and long hours. But I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t believe in it,” Alissa said.
“If this program helps one kid then everything that I’ve been through will be worth it as far as I’m concerned.”
You can order a pair of School Sunnies Australia by CLICKING HERE
Each pair is made with poly-carbonate lenses, tested and certified by Australian Standards to the highest UV protection rating.
“They’re almost like safety lenses. We know that kids will be playing with them on so they’ve been designed so that if they got hit with a ball for example, they won’t shatter,” Alissa said.
They also come with an ID slot on the frame for their name to be written. Important – imagine every kid at school with the same sunglasses!
It’s a three-piece pack with a hard case that clips onto the school bag – saves rummaging through the books – and includes a microfibre cleaning cloth.
“I’ve never really taken it to market properly, until now. I’ve always been working fulltime and doing this on the side, trying to get the message out there,” Alissa said.
“Now is the moment of truth. We have stock and it’s a really good product and I know that we can make a difference.”