BackTrack, which has established a gilt edged reputation for turning around the lives of at risk youth in Armidale, has been nominated for this year’s Chamber Business Awards in the community service category.
The organisation’s innovative programs currently involve 54 young people in a range of activities that prepare them for work and re-engagement with the community.
The mood at the BackTrack workshop on Waterfall Way is upbeat. A team of young guns has just returned from the Royal Easter Show after performing skillfully as the youngest competitors in the Young Farmers Challenge. Twelve boys travelled to the Tocal College graduation day in Paterson to receive their Certificate II in Agriculture.
Another award win has been announced, this time in partnership: the prestigious NSW School’s Nanga Mai award for the successful community/school partnership with Armidale High School.
In the shed, sparks are flying, as boys in protective masks bend over welding machines. Outside, another group of boys are training the Paws Up Border Collies to jump as high as they can. The AgLads teams of farm workers leave for contracting work on nearby properties. Manager Bernie Shakeshaft and his youth workers conduct regular circle work, sometimes twice a day, where boys discuss their issues.
It’s a busy place already, but barely meets the demands from schools, parents and government agencies to take on kids who have lost their way in the mainstream and are creating trouble for the authorities. The BackTrack magic is largely due to Bernie’s conviction that young men require firm discipline, engagement in activities where they can succeed and that will lead to work, a stable background of unconditional and continuing support and some fun times.
BackTrack began six years ago with the Iron Man Welders Shed, a concept supported by Armidale Dumaresq Council, which provided the old shire workshop at a peppercorn rent, local businesses New England Mutual, The Armidale Bowling Club and Hillgrove Mine who donated funding to buy equipment and the support of local MP Richard Torbay and many other businesses in town that provided materials and funding for the new venture. Jobs Australia took on the management of the organisation.
The next step was the dog training, a skill Bernie passed on to the boys. The Paws Up team with its Border Collies stormed the local show circuit and then beat all comers in the national championships against Kelpies in Casterton, Victoria. The boys and dogs were guest performers to huge and appreciative crowds at last year’s Royal Easter Show in Sydney and are regular drawcards at events locally and across the state. The upshot has been positive. Boys learned discipline as they learned to control their dogs, at the shows they engaged with the community and learned to communicate with farmers and onlookers interested in their skills. Success has developed confidence and a certain chutzpah about performing in public.
Last year when farmers in Mingoola and Bonshaw on the Queensland border were struggling to repair fences and clean up debris after the devastating floods, a team of BackTrack boys and their supervisors volunteered to help. At first there was some scepticism that a group of young rookies could cut it in such a tough and demanding operation, especially in temperatures of above 40 degrees most days. However, the fencing skills the BackTrack boys had learned on training farms came into play. Farmers were deeply impressed, especially as one boy managed to install 70 star pickets in one day. They completed $60,000 worth of fencing and brought with them donations of wire, star pickets and equipment from well wishers in Armidale wanting to support the flood relief effort. The group won a Premier’s Award for their work and firm friendships between BackTrack and the Mingoola and Bonshaw communities continue to this day.
As a result of the flood relief work, the BackTrack AgLads program gained fresh momentum. The boys, more than half of them Aboriginal, had proved their stripes and their skills. Training on three local farms stepped up. They learned more about low stress stock handling and management, building yards, carting hay, using chain saws, driving tractors and handling heavy equipment. They have formed strong relationships with their farmer mentors and their families, stay overnight and develop a good work ethic, largely because they enjoy what they are doing. In October, Tocal College offered a week’s intensive residential course for 12 boys to assess their existing skills and meet any gaps needed for them to acquire Certificate II in Agriculture credentials.
All 12 graduated last month and are now undertaking commercial contracting work with AgLads teams on farms in the local district. Coordinator Dusty Fenn supervises the operations. They are called in to help farmers with drenching, mustering, fencing, hay carting, yard building, tractor work and other farm work. Fenn explains that many farmers no longer employ full-time labour, many also are ageing and like the convenience of calling in a team to help with the heavy duty jobs on their properties. The business is growing and acts as a training ground for the BackTrack boys, as well as being financially sustainable. Feedback from farmers has been positive, particularly on the standard of work and value for money.
If it all sounds euphoric – it’s not. Bernie and his team work with a broad spectrum of young people. When they join, the boys are required to follow a strict regime of behaviour and to continue with their education and training either at school or a formal training organisation. Over the last two years, four senior boys have been training as Youth Workers and are well on their way to gaining formal qualifications. They work with Bernie supervising the younger boys and conducting the circle work which is at the centre of the operation. Offering interest, success and prospects is one thing, but providing security, a family environment and continuing support is at the heart of the operation.
Many of the BackTrack kids regard the workshop campus as their home and the staff and other boys as their family. Money is always tight, behaviour issues arise and the budget is strained, but the results speak for themselves.
This story was published in issue 60 of New England Focus