In the small north-western NSW towns of Bundarra, Inverell and Tingha, disadvantaged Indigenous teens have been given a second chance.

Run by BEST Employment’s Mel Dowell, Crossing the Divide is a program that works with disengaged, troubled young people, many who haven’t been in school for years and are repeatedly running afoul of the law. 

“We’re helping youth who have disengaged with traditional education systems,” said Mel. “It’s their second chance to get an education, including a HSC and practical life skills.” And now, thanks to a much-needed injection of funds from Coca-Cola Australia Foundation, the good work can continue. 

A new start, a fresh page

“The program offers practical activities such as automotive spraying, mechanical repairs, scrap metal art, Aboriginal art, wood work and carpentry,” explained Mel. “It’s also a very supportive environment - for example, participants who have drug and alcohol dependency issues attend drug and alcohol counselling through our local Aboriginal Medical Service. And we also feed everyone, ensuring that they have a hearty brekkie as many don't eat regularly at home.”

From behind bars to top marks

“There’s a young 22-year-old guy here called Scott* who’s been in the program for about a year,” said Mel. “He’d dropped out of school in year 9 and fell in with the wrong crowd. Drugs and alcohol became his lifestyle, and he started breaking and entering. He was caught, spent 18 months in prison. Scott was referred to the program as part of his parole – he’d just come out of jail and had zero prospects."

According to Mel, Scott was angry, frustrated, untrusting and very reserved when he started with the program. Twelve months later, he is now drug-free, work-ready and committed to achieving his final milestone – his HSC.

“The work he produces is seriously exemplary, and he’s now keen to pursue a career in youth work and mentor other Indigenous kids to give them a future as well,” she added.

Making the connection

“It is very rewarding to watch the kids learn to trust and re-engage,” said co-manager Matt Pye, who pioneered the Crossing the Divide program. 

“Early on, they test the boundaries, abuse their tutors and some even attempt to walk over 45kms to get home. Progressively though, they learn their tutors won’t give up on them - that they actually expect them to achieve. Many of these kids haven’t had anyone tell them how talented they are before. So, once they start trusting, participants start believing in their own self-worth.”

It’s not always easy, according to Mel, but when they have a breakthrough, the ripple effect is outstanding. 

“You see the best and worst of human behavior, and it’s easy to become disillusioned when the heartbreaking stories seem to outnumber the good ones," she said. "Programs like this provide a heartwarming reminder of the good that can be achieved. To observe a young person overcome adversity in their life, stop taking drugs, stay out of trouble, get their HSC, secure a job and moves into their own house… well, it is immensely satisfying.”

Given its success, Matt has big visions for Crossing the Divide. 

“I’d really love to see the program become an alternative education solution that’s able to be implemented in other schools," he said. "We know it works, and the more young troubled people this helps, the better." 

To help donate to the Crossing the Divide program, interested parties can contact Mel Dowell at BEST Employment on (02)6721 3222 or mel@best.com.au

* Not his real name.