by A. Charles Smith
How? to If
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt
But make allowance for their doubting to,…
Rudyard Kipling’s immortal words have fired the imaginations for generations. “If” captures strength and vulnerability. Overcoming the impossible, stilling the urge to complain, forgiving those who have wronged you, part of growing in the walk of life.
But unlike the suggestion in the poem, not all have that steadying parental figure to guide them. To the thousands who have turned to Youth Insearch (YI), they regard this experience as pivotal in swapping the misspent for the productive.
Founded at Riverstone in New South Wales in 1985, YI operates an early intervention program involving counselling support and mentoring for young people in the 14 to 20 age group. Many are at points in their lives where the consequences of continuing unaddressed behaviour will lead to long-term incarceration.
Garry Rothwell has been YI’s chairman for three years. A trained architect and very successful unit complex developer, Garry describes how he became involved.
“I was shocked at the high level of youth suicide after reading Steve Biddulph’s book. I had three sons of my own. It’s insane that a modern functioning society like this one tolerates such a statistic.”
Fifteen years ago he decided to do something to stem this scourge. Soon after he was introduced to Youth Insearch. Since then, Garry has marvelled at the ongoing success of the program.
There practical advice and solutions are presented to heal and then provide answers for youth when inevitably they have to face the world. YI recognises that young people can’t be cocooned but they can be equipped.
Invariably, those who access the service are beset with distressing experiences. YI’s mission is to draw out the pain and frequently, the multi-faceted abuse.
The first step involves creating a friendly, caring and trusting ambience.
“Participants need to know they are being heard and understand that each one of them remains integral to finding his and her own solution.”
Because of a group setting, listening to the stories of others is a vital incident of the process. Far from it being distracting, experience has shown that this makes an important contribution.
“Hearing from others affords insights into the individual’s own life, ‘that same thing happened to me as well,’ is a recurring reaction,” says Garry.
So turning people away from despair occasioned by destructive behaviour before it is too late has worked well and transformed lives.
Amongst attendees at the program, there is a high incidence of broken and dysfunctional family backgrounds. Drug and alcohol abuse, offending behaviour, low self-esteem, suicidal ideation and sexual abuse are common threads in the lives of those seeking help.
Referrals are made from the courts, police, teachers, parents, counsellors, government agencies and many other groups. No one is compelled to attend. Last year 800 to 1000 were inducted. The regular camps are supported by 200 volunteers and ten fulltime staff.
When the program started, police were startled. The local Inspector reported an immediate drop in crime in Riverstone.
The gutsy toil is undertaken at the week-end workshops. The four locations are at Lake Keepit and Toukley in NSW, Bundaberg and Esk in Queensland and Rawson in Victoria. These are conducted between 6pm Friday and 3pm Sunday. A typical workshop involves sixty-five candidates, comprising groups of around ten, with support staff, and there is a team of ten to fifteen.
The objectives are to engender trust develop communication skills in a safe environment and invoke an atmosphere that encourages frank discussion respecting issues of concern. This includes providing support to those suffering personal trauma and empowering participants to find possible solutions by drawing on the experiences of their peers.
The camps are designed to address issues of family conflict, neglect, domestic violence, alcohol and drug abuse, indecent dealing, grief and loss, self-harm, bullying and suicidal tendencies.
Many who go through the program express a desire to become leaders themselves. Young participants relate well to other young people especially where there are shared experiences.
Garry says that this is one of the key attributes of its success. “Young people not far removed in age from those who are hurting, share their own journey of healing.”
YI also conducts group leader training courses. The training is intensive and thorough spreading over twelve months. A number of highly credentialed trainers, psychologists and presenters are involved in the course.
An annual ceremony occurs at Government House where graduates are presented to the Governor of New South Wales.
YI funding is sourced from a mix of government, corporate and individual donations, but there is always a need for more.
“Adequate funding is important. The more we receive, the less pressure on those running the programs to be diverted away from their tasks by fundraising.”
The most persuasive evidence of YI’s success comes from its graduates.
Heath Ducker is one of those. He grew up in a Housing Commission house in Oatlands, the second eldest of ten children. Just he and his younger brother shared the same biological Dad. The other eight had a procession of fathers. None of those ever lived in the house on a full time basis.
“One only stuck around on week-ends for a while,” he says in a manner that would be amusing at a comedy show retrospective. But this was an account from a man who, as a boy, suffered a profound deprivation that no child should have to bear.
Windows broken and remaining unfixed for years, no blankets and not even a towel with which to dry off. It is difficult to imagine the degree of scavenging this would entail in a house full of untended children.
“I would come home to nothing, bare cupboards and an empty fridge. It made me angry and I fought with my little sisters and mother all the time.”
If that was not enough, Heath was sexually abused when he was eleven and twelve years old.
“My best friend’s father sexually abused me when I was eleven and twelve years old. I did not have a clue what to do.”
Eventually he found YI and thereafter, self-belief found him.
“It was the first time in my life that I believed I could do anything.”
The YI experience impelled him to confront the awful, dark secret. Heath describes it as furnishing the ‘courage to come forward’ and report the abuser to the proper authorities.
“Something happened at court. I looked into his [the abuser’s] eyes. It was then that I took the power back and saw this human being afraid of what was going to happen to him. But it is what happened to me that was cause for joy. I forgave him. And, at that moment, the pain, the guilt, the shame and the unutterable sadness left me. Hey, I did not have to deal with it anymore!”
Telling that element of his story at the YI camp left listeners dumbfounded.
“People were astonished that I could forgive him. But I did and it gave me an overwhelming feeling. In a flash, I had been liberated.”
Heath’s experience of the camp was evocative. He was determined to make something of his life. Fine having the ambition, but he needed to study, achieve a good outcome and get to university. That was easy to conjure up in abstract thought processes, but much more difficult in its implementation.
Back at the chaotic house, he had to find a refuge, so he climbed on the roof, books and pens under one arm. It worked for a while but could never be enough with its obvious limitations.
In his final year at high school, he moved to an Uncle’s house, craving peace and quiet. This proved to be the fillip he needed.
One of his great ambitions was realised when he became a YI leader. Being presented to the Governor at the graduation ceremony was a very proud moment.
But an even greater thrill awaited him, through his association with YI and people he met in the organisation.
“I actually sat down in the Prime Minister’s office. There John Howard and I conversed about the problems of young people. Does it get any better than that?”
It probably doesn’t and just goes to show what the YI experience can have in store.
Heath lauds YI as giving him the tools to open his life to vast opportunities. He credits the organisation with providing him the opportunity for success. “YI does not offer ‘feel-good’ seminars. It is about changing lives.”
And what are his goals now?
“My experiences have made me who I am today. I have been endowed to appreciate that the past does not equal the future. I want to get married, have a family, be a good father and signal the fact that I have completely broken the cycle.”
But he is not alone in his YI adventure. Jared Goodwin is a former employee of YI and was its chairman for eighteen months. What a distance he had to travel to get there.
At fifteen he was experiencing difficulties in a single parent home. His mother worked a lot doing her best to provide He rebelled and started using marijuana. As the habit grew, he frequently was absent from school. He was kicked out, drifted into a seedy crowd and began stealing. Finally he was caught in a stolen car and faced 10 charges relating to petty crime and theft. “It sure opened my mother’s eyes. She had no idea what I’d been up to.”
A police officer directed him to YI and in 1997 he attended his first Youth Insearch program just outside of Lithgow, NSW.
“When I arrived and they said it was time for the first session, I thought, ‘cool, good way to give up drugs, we smoke them first, questions later,’” he recalls mischievously.
Of course that did not happen and in a room he sat and listened to the stories of others like him.
The renowned Christian psychologist Chuck Swindoll once related a story of a wild and angry young man who he was counselling. Poignantly the fatherless twenty year-old, asked him, “Please sir, can you teach me how to be a man?”
In remarkably similar language Jared told his story to the group.
“All the emotions I had bottled up for years just left me. I never had a father. I always craved a father figure around. I just wanted to do ‘blokey’ things.”
Jared says that the experience at the YI camps drove him towards getting on with life. He too wanted to be a youth leader.
“Of course I had to give up drugs and crime and repair the relationship with my mother. It meant saying goodbye to lots of my friends. Going through a time like this you also realise who your true friends are. Many disappeared, the others are still amongst my closest friends today. There is little doubt that the process tested him. His epiphany arrived when he saw many of these former mates locked away.
He found that one of the really impressive tenets of the camps at YI was its free-flowing atmosphere. Others in the course spoke from their own experience.
“That’s what makes young people click. There are options for betterment. And best of all, you don’t have people preaching to you out of a text book.”
One very rewarding experience for Jared was to walk the Kokoda Trek with someone he had always held in high esteem, Charlie Lynn. He has been a significant contributor to the YI leadership training program. Jared walked this with his “great mate” Heath where he learned so much about history and himself.
“It really helped me put things in perspective; here I was with little on my back, not much to worry about and not fighting a war. It made me reflect on the adversities I had overcome and that I could use these to push through the tough times. Youth Insearch is all about teaching you to turn your disadvantage to your advantage,
Jared is now thirty three years old, married to Jennifer whom he met through YI and they have two daughters. He has held senior sales and managerial positions and is Senior Business Development Manager at Bowermans Office Furniture and currently remains on the board of directors of YI.
Yet another account of the YI revolution for young people is Steve Lewin’s story. He takes you through a litany of psychological experiences that for the uninitiated are almost beyond comprehension.
As a child he suffered from serious behavioural problems.
“I had been to counsellors, therapists and then the family doctor told my parents I was a, ‘devil child.’”
Undoubtedly stubborn and inventively resistant to methods proposed to correct his behaviour, he refused to clean his room. To ameliorate such attitudes, his parents were told to stack the rubbish on his bed.
“That didn’t work because I slept on the floor.”
Leaving clutter all over his room also failed to alter his rebelliousness. Things went from bad to unfixable. He resorted to threatening behaviours with knives, sometimes joking, sometimes unclear as to his intentions when in conflict with siblings. He had zilch social skills. The family lived on a remote farm outside of Wagga and were at a complete impasse.
Sent to a youth refuge in town, trouble followed him there. He was removed for smoking pot and absenting himself without explanation. In company with a friend they pinched a tent and lived by the river. Then it became cold and he stole blankets and camped outside the showgrounds at Tolland. In and out of houses, he was eventually placed back at the refuge. That experiment was short-lived as he refused to obey the rules of the house.
Desperate for a roof over his head, Steve took up with a group of boys, manipulated into criminal activity by a latter-day Fagin figure.
“I was no Oliver Twist though. No one abducted me and forced me to do it. We stole cars and broke into shops. He gave us drugs and shelter in return.”
Individuals were robbed of modest possessions and even the accoutrements of Christian worship were purloined for gain. Nothing was sacrosanct. One in the group ended up killing someone.
“We were scared of this older fellow. He had been in jail and, as a means of keeping us under subjection, mentioned that he had maimed people who had got in his way.”
As with all such enterprises, the end came suddenly. Steve co-operated with the police when they pounced. The options for him were limited.
“I was only seventeen. It was not difficult to accept a stint at YI in company with a suspended sentence rather than juvenile detention.”
The decision became a dye-marker in his development. A sense of belonging and acceptance for who he was began to strip away the inconnected state that characterised his schooling.
“I had never socialised at school. I did not speak at the camps either until I became a leader. But I realised I wasn’t the only ‘psycho kid’ out there and that mended me inside more than anything else.” He finds it easy to say this now with some humour.
After the camps, he maintained contact with a support structure at Wagga. That people in the group assisted each other was of fundamental importance to his transformation. He was determined to create a positive destiny. Working and focusing on keeping out of trouble characterised this period of his renaissance.
The next step was leadership training. Graduating into this role gave Steve the confidence he had found so elusive until that time. He was involved in Rotary youth leadership at twenty.
By then he gained the confidence to tell his story with a view to helping others. There were motivational talks at the Department of Education, Rotary Youth Enrichment programs and he even spoke at Parliament House in New South Wales.
“It was there that I met Charlie Lyn, a Member of the Legislative Council. He paid for me to undertake the Kokoda Trail trek.”
That was a phenomenal challenge for him. He was not one to sit back and imagine it would be a cakewalk. In the weeks leading up to the trek, he took to running six kilometres a day. Once into the arduous climb, he found himself frustrated by the slower ones who had not done the preparation he had.
“That’s where Charlie came in and it taught me a lesson for life. He told me, ‘It doesn’t matter how fit you are. You’re only as fit as the weakest link so work together to get through.’ And so we did. Man, was that good advice!”
A latent ambition had now come to the forefront of his thinking. He had always wanted to be a commercial pilot. He set about trying to realise this and secured his restricted licence before discovering a chronic kidney impairment that ruled him out of further flying attainments.
Steve moved to Wollongong with his family to establish another career. He was married and the father of two children.
Nineteen years on, having worked at DOCS as a youth worker, managed Disability and Home Care Services for the NSW Government, he has obtained his MBA and returned to YI as General Manager, to help create a sustainable future for this amazing organisation. His parents and other family moved to Nowra and reconciliation with them is complete. He has acquired a distinct contentment and love of life.
“Where once everything from my youth was to the forefront of my mind, now I really have to try hard to recall it all. That’s a sign I’m healed. Without YI this would never have occurred.
His words harken back to Kipling’s unforgettable concluding lines of “If”:
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run—
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!
by A. Charles Smith