Scanning the newspaper, Melissa Abu-Gazaleh wondered where all the good guys were. In more than 70 per cent of the stories she read, young men were portrayed as thugs, goons and crooks. So, although she was only 19 at the time, Melissa decided to do something about it. 

In 2006, she founded Top Blokes Foundation, an organisation devoted to promoting positive behaviour and strong role models for young men. Working with more than 1000 men between the ages of 14 and 24 each year, the program addresses issues of alcohol and drug use, mental health, sexting and pornography, anger management, relationships, racism and sexuality.

Melissa argues that society often overlooks these issues and their impact on young men. “When I started the Top Blokes Foundation, people used to laugh. Wasn't I supposed to be doing something with young women?” she said. “No one considered it a legitimate cause. But young men's mental health, young men's suicide, these are real issues."

The foundation’s biggest program, Junior Top Blokes, aims to tackle these issues through a 16-week peer-mentoring program in high schools. Delivered by mentors under 30 years of age, the program not only presents its subject matter in a way that’s relevant to young men, it also provides a forum for discussion.

“What’s critical about our programs is that we deliver them to teenage boys when they’re in their critical risk-taking stage,” explained Melissa. “Risk-taking isn’t always negative – our program is about helping them to make better judgements when they’re around peer pressure and anti-social behavior, so they don’t end up regretting the choices they make.” 

A grant from Coca-Cola has allowed the Top Blokes Foundation to extend its mentorship program to more high schools throughout the country. “The Coca-Cola grant’s going to help us run the Junior Top Blokes program in schools that are currently on our waiting list,” Melissa said. “We run it in public high schools that obviously don’t have a budget to meet the needs of all their students. The Coca-Cola grant is going to help us go to five schools where we’ll be able to assist 150 young guys throughout the 16 weeks.”

Melissa has already seen some great results from the Top Blokes programs. “The communication between the students and their teachers is increasing,” she explained. “some of our evaluations show that 92% of participants stated that the program had made them rethink their drinking and drug consumption and 94% stated that they have a better understanding of the legal and social implications of sexting".

While the issues of male role models and teenage risk-taking can be complex, Melissa believes the solution is simple. “We're always talking about whether there’s a crisis in masculinity and what we’re going to do with our boys,” she said. “But at the end of the day, I think we need to give young men a voice and help them to help themselves.”