“We teach them when they leave to slide their seat back. When you learn online it won’t happen.”
Last week The Sunday Era got exclusive access to one of the sessions, which aims to help young people understand themselves and their environment a little better. If that works, the mental health benefits will be huge.
The day begins just after 10am on the top floor of Reach’s large warehouse-style building on Wellington Street, Collingwood, where chaos reigns. It’s a whirlwind of puffers, hoodies, jeans, caps and MND beanies. Despite the cold, Melbourne is Melbourne, there is at least one kid in shorts.
Some think they are here for lectures on bullying, but now they are letting go. The popular girls pose for selfies with a ring light, the tough guys compete for the highest pinstripe on a brick wall, others cut themselves out of circulation and splash on beanbags in the corner.
Scattered through the crowd are the Reach facilitators, observing, judging. Reach’s support crew has messy hair and cool clothes. They don’t look like teachers, but like older siblings who are on your side but still yelling your shit. The oldest is 26, the youngest just 15; his parents have given him permission for a day off.
Inside the auditoriums, giant screens display the statistics. One in five of their peers lives with a single parent. Twenty-three percent have been bullied in the past year, 39 percent drink alcohol to a risk level, 51 percent are unhappy with the way they look. And then the biggie: more than 350 young people aged 18 to 24 commit suicide every year. There is silence.
During the day, encouraged by the attendants, more young people stand up from the audience, take the microphone, say their name and find their voice: I want to play Lego with my friend, but he smokes too much weed; I am a pleaser; I’m thinking about tying my breasts; I want to talk about racism; I have fear; I hang out with people I don’t like when I want to exercise; my family tells me not to be weak; I want to become a doctor specializing in pathology.
A boy, one of the self-proclaimed smarties, takes on a challenge and climbs a ladder. Does he trust his peers enough to fall back into their arms? The audience is thrilled, but it’s his thoughts and feelings onstage afterwards that compel him as he talks about his inspiring mother, his belief in hard work and his desire to grow up helping people.
The day always starts with one child selected to answer the simple question. “Who are you?”
Exactly the same question, asked every Hero’s Day, always amazes. Stynes asked 22 years ago and the kid who couldn’t answer then was Fergus Watts, who grew up to be an AFL player and co-founder of communications and marketing company Bastion, with his brother Jack.
This year, Watts stepped down from the Reach board to take over as chief executive, following a lapse of executives.
“Jim pulled me to my seat and said ‘who are you’?” Watts remembers. “That key question – who are you – is the question. If you know who you are, you’re more likely to go through life in a strong, confident mental health position than if you don’t.”
Heldendag is about The Hero’s Journey. Not just Luke Skywalker in Star Warsbut the teens in the audience, each day mimicking the journey from their Familiar World home to the Extraordinary World – all that life has to offer them.
Growing up is different now, warns Sophia Viola, a 14-year-old school principal at Brookside College, a prep for the 9th state school in Caroline Springs. “Most of the time it is busy. People feel they will be judged.”
Buckley Park student April Kokkoris, 14, says on Hero’s Day “children could finally have a say. Once upon a time, people were actually listening.”
“It shocked me how much you don’t really see what goes on behind the scenes with kids and how much their lives at home affect the way they are as people,” Kokkoris said.
“Although we haven’t lived much compared to adults, we still have a lot to deal with, and it affects us greatly. There’s a lot more that catches our eye.”
By the time Telaine attended a Reach camp, she had been banned 48 times and had become a juvenile delinquent. She ran away from it. Stynes made sure she attends the next camp, making sure it would be on an island. There was no escape. Stynes, she says, liked naughty children.
“He just loved the guts and the determination and the resilience that young people had, who were perhaps more mischievous than others. Because their life experience had given them opportunities to find that resilience and courage and courage.”
Stynes died of cancer in 2012, aged 45. Telaine stayed with Reach and is now part of the leadership team, where he works as a national training manager. She says of Stynes, “He knew that with the right people around them, they would create a beautiful life for themselves, so he would step in and become that person.”
And what about the Heroes themselves? By mid-afternoon, they had endured trials, enemies and allies, before slaying their dragons and reaping the reward. It’s not a pot of gold, or even KFC, the guides say, but knowledge about themselves.
A little wiser, they pulled out of the foundation, into Wellington Street, and out into the wide, wide world.
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