The camp saving young lives fights for funding
It's transformed the lives of thousands of troubled young people. But now Youth Insearch is at risk, as the government is yet to renew its annual $400,000 funding.
In December, 2016, The Northern Daily Leader launched its 'Kids Back On Track' campaign.
This is how the story has unfolded.
A TAMWORTH magistrate says the only youth support program he's seen work consistently in his 25 years behind the bench is at risk, when the government cuts its funding next year.
Mal MacPherson said the transformation troubled young people go through in one intensive weekend of the Youth Insearch program at Lake Keepit was "extraordinary".
"I've seen young people in a foetal position on Friday when the camp starts, who are running around on Sunday, completely different people," he said.
"So many come here with absolutely no self-esteem, angry, hating themselves and the whole world. One of the things the program does is to get young people to start loving themselves."
Mr MacPherson said it would be a travesty for anything to happen to such an effective program.
"As a magistrate, I keep seeing the same young people coming into court like a revolving door," he said.
"Locking them up and throwing away the key doesn't work for these young people. You need to deal with the underlying problems, which is exactly what Youth Insearch does."
A TAMWORTH woman has spoken out against the government's plans to cut funding to a youth support program, saying it saved her life as a troubled teen.
Rebecca Shaw has been involved in Youth Insearch for eight years, since she was 15.
First as a troubled teen, then as an adult supporting the program – now she's training to be a Youth Insearch leader to give back to the program that saved her life.
"The program saved my life. I was suicidal and over life in general. It helped me turn my life around and turned me into the person I am today," Ms Shaw said.
"This program works, I'm living proof it works. Some of these kids come from horrific backgrounds and all they need is a hug or someone to say 'I'm proud of you'."
AFTER years of physical, mental and sexual abuse, Rhianne had no self-esteem when she went to her first Youth Insearch camp.
In seven camps over the last year, the Tamworth local transformed from a quiet, withdrawn girl to a happy and confident young woman.
"Youth Insearch has saved my life, without it I wouldn't be here today," she told The Leader.
Like many of those who go through Youth Insearch, Rhianne's confronting story begins with a troubled home life. She was in and out of foster homes since the age of 14, and sexually assaulted by someone close to her at the age of 15.
"I was self-harming, not eating, just not looking after myself – after all of the abuse, I just didn't think I deserved it," she said.
"The Youth Insearch camp was a safe place to talk about what was going on in my life.
"After everything I have been through, to come out happy and confident, employed and living a full life is incredible."
One week into the campaign, the Deputy Prime Minister speaks up.
BARNABY Joyce has promised to help get those with a powerful story in the same room as the Social Services Minister, in the hope of saving a life-changing program.
Earlier this week, The Leader reported Youth Insearch was at risk when it runs out of government funding next year. Since then, there has been a deluge of support, with dozens of people coming forward to share their experience with the program.
Mr Joyce responded to letters from Youth Insearch chief executive Heath Ducker and Tamworth magistrate Mal MacPherson, requesting his help to meet with Social Services Minister Christian Porter.
"I have written to Minister Porter, asking if consideration could be given to this request in light of the concerns and points which you [Mr Ducker] and Mr MacPherson have raised, and for his advice as soon as possible," Mr Joyce wrote.
HUNDREDS of the region's most troubled young people have turned their lives around thanks to Youth Insearch.
Aimee Caulfield has been involved in the program for six years and said there was a simple secret to its success – it's led by other young people.
"A lot of the young people we have in the program sit in a room with a counsellor who is 20 or 30 years older than them, and they find it hard to communicate with them," Ms Caulfield said.
"To have a person in the same age group as you, who has been through the program, and is willingly to share their story is really important."
Watch her story below.
The Social Services Minister, Christian Porter remains silent.
IT'S been six weeks since the Deputy Prime Minister requested a meeting with the Social Services Minister to discuss funding Youth Insearch, but Barnaby Joyce is yet to hear back from his fellow cabinet member.
A spokeswoman for Mr Joyce said he wrote to Mr Porter on December 13, 2016, on behalf of Mr Ducker and Mr MacPherson, requesting a meeting between the four of them.
"[Mr Joyce] hopes to receive a reply soon," she said.
When asked by The Leader, a spokesman for Social Services Minister Christian Porter gave no indication if or when the meeting would occur.
YOUTH Insearch advocates have challenged politicians to come to one of the program's camps and still deny it funding.
"I challenge anyone to walk away with a harden heart."
Youth Insearch New England coordinator David Allard said if the people who made budget decisions spent a weekend immersed in a Youth Insearch camp, they would not hesitate to continue funding the program.
"It is impossible to go to one of these camps, even as an observer, and not be moved," Mr Allard said.
"I've never see an adult not cry at their first camp, I've never seen an adult walk away changed themselves."
High-profile supporters of Youth Insearch add their voice to the choir.
FORMER Wallaby James 'Jimmy' Holbeck is a tough bloke – he's one of the few people to tackle giant All Black winger Jonah Lomu in full flight.
But the stories he hears at Youth Insearch camps reduce him to tears.
"The number of stories at camps that have reduced me to tears and a state of anger that we allow these kids to be in these situations," Mr Holbeck said.
"It makes me frustrated we can't do more. We have a program here that is able to do more, and we are not willing to allow it to do more."
KIDS across Australia grew up watching Benita Collings on Play School, but behind the scenes she was quietly helping troubled youths turn their lives around.
For more than 20 years, Ms Collings has been training Youth Insearch leaders and attending the youth support program's camps.
In that time, she's witnessed thousands of broken young people turn their lives around.
"At my first camp, I spent half the time crying after listening to the stories of the people there," she said.
"I don't cry anymore, outwardly anyway, but when you hear some of these stories, you think 'how are you still alive, how have you managed to survive?’"
FUNDING Youth Insearch should be above politics and the government's budget rhetoric, the Shadow Social Services Minister says.
Jenny Macklin has the second-longest reign as Social Services Minister, holding the portfolio for more than five years.
During that time, she oversaw a number of funding announcements for Youth Insearch and is well aware of the "terrific work" the organisation does.
Ms Macklin said a key focus of any good government should be to help those young people who are vulnerable or at risk.
Two months into the campaign, Barnaby Joyce locks in a meeting and announces $50,000 for Youth Insearch.
"To run the whole show, we need $400,000."
YOUTH Insearch's funding plight will be discussed at the highest level, with Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce and Parkes MP Mark Coulton sitting down for a round-table discussion with Social Services Minister Christian Porter on Wednesday.
The news comes as the Department of Social Services announced it would give Youth Insearch an additional $50,000 to see it through to the end of the year.
"This is a great start and means that Youth Insearch can continue doing good work – however Mark Coulton, Minister Porter and myself will meet in February to discuss further funding possibilities for the long term," Mr Joyce said.
Tamworth magistrate Mal MacPherson was recently awarded Tamworth Citizen of the Year for his work with Youth Insearch. While he was grateful for the funding extension, he said "to run the whole show, we need $400,000".
"Something is better than nothing – it's just one of those things, we need to keep knocking at the door until we get some satisfaction," Mr MacPherson said.
"It would be an absolute tragedy if this program failed in want of a few dollars, because lets face it, it really is only a few dollars."
THE government has promised to support Youth Insearch through various application processes, but the program remains in funding limbo without a rock-solid commitment from the government.
On Thursday, a high-level meeting between Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce, Social Services Minister Christian Porter, Parkes MP Mark Coulton and Youth Insearch advocates identified two funding streams the program would have to apply for to make up the required $400,000 per annum.
Youth Insearch CEO Heath Ducker said the meeting was "very encouraging" and confirmed the support of Mr Joyce, Mr Coulton and Mr Porter.
"Youth Insearch still faces funding limbo, pending the outcome of multiple grant applications, which will not be resolved for some months," Mr Ducker said.
"Specifically, the funding stream under which Youth Insearch is funded is now capped at up to $150,000, and if successful in obtaining that funding, we would still need to apply for another grant or grants to make up the difference.
In late February, Barnaby Joyce is invited to come to the first Youth Insearch camp of 2017.
NEARLY 50 young people took the first step in turning their lives around on Saturday, at Youth Insearch's first camp of the year at Lake Keepit.
Deputy Prime Minister and local MP Barnaby Joyce sat in the trust circle, listening to the young participants share their stories of broken homes, abuse and neglect.
Youth Insearch CEO Heath Ducker wanted to give Mr Joyce the opportunity to witness a session and see why the program was so successful.
"Our preference is to have some funding committed outside of the grant, as has been done in the past."
YOUTH Insearch has put forward an application for government funding, but its future is still in a "phase of uncertainty".
It submitted its youth support program to the Try, Test and Learn fund, which is aimed at "young carers, young parents and young students at risk of long-term unemployment".
"Our experience has shown that young people at risk of long term unemployment have had traumatic experiences that deeply impact their thinking and consequently their behaviour," Youth Insearch CEO Heath Ducker said.
Youth Insearch will also apply for up to $150,000 grant under the Community Capacity Building fund, but is still seeking the government to give it a rock-solid commitment of $400,000 a year.
"Our preference is to have some funding committed outside of the grant, as has been done in the past," Mr Ducker said.
Despite the campaign, and the support of the Deputy Prime Minister, Youth Insearch is still without a funding commitment.
The charity is still holding out hope the government will provide it with funding in the upcoming 2017 budget.
YOUTH Insearch is making one final plea to the federal government to provide the charity with guaranteed funding in the upcoming budget, which is due to drop in less than a month.
Tamworth acting magistrate Mal MacPherson said funding the youth support program was just as important as the tax breaks being considered for businesses.
"I'm pleading them to not look at this in just money terms, but in personal terms and what a difference a few bob makes to these young people," he said.
"These kids have no hope at the start of the program – you can see it in their eyes, you listen to them say things like 'I'm worthless, nobody cares’ – to having hope at the end. I know it sounds miraculous, but it works."
Besides the compassionate reasons, Mr MacPherson said it made sense from an economic viewpoint.
"These vulnerable kids end up becoming an economic burden on society if we don't do something about it," he said.
The latest government figures put the average cost of keeping a juvenile in detention for a year at nearly $500,000.
Last year, Youth Insearch worked with more than 550 kids who had trouble with police before attending the program – 84 per cent of those have not re-offended.
"Even if we stop just a fraction of those young people from going into detention, the government has saved money," Youth Insearch CEO Heath Ducker said.
Mr Ducker, who went to the program himself as a troubled teen, said the $400,000 it was asking for, and normally received, formed the foundation of the organisation.
Most of its other costs were covered by private benefactors and volunteers. But without that foundation and security the government funding provides, the program is at risk.
"We'll have cut services to 400 young people, and those are 400 of the most at-risk and desperate young people," Mr Ducker said.
"It's time to step up and support Youth Insearch. Look at the facts, there are clear benefits and clear cost savings. These are real young people who are going to miss out and it's not good enough there is no commitment."
Journalist Jamieson Murphy was also invited to attend the same camp as Barnaby Joyce.
Below, he tells the confronting story of Justin, one of the program's young participants trying to turn his life around.
"It's the first time I've sat in a room of people who actually give a f*** about me."
They're not bad kids. They're kids that have had bad things happen to them.
Kids like *Justin, 18, who lives in a small house with his two young brothers, his ice addict parents and up to four of their ice-addicted friends.
His mother first showed him what drugs were when he was four. When he was 12, his dad introduced him to smoking marijuana. Walking past bags filled with kilograms of ice in the living room is part of his normal reality.
Justin's home life is volatile. He has arguments with his father every other day, which usually end in a fist fight on the front lawn – but since starting Youth Insearch, occasionally they'll "hug it out" instead.
It's not hard to see the path that led Justin to Youth Insearch. He's been in trouble with the law many times, mainly assault and property damage. Instead of being shipped off to prison or juvenile detention, which would set his feet firmly on the path he was on, Justin was offered the chance to turn his life around through Youth Insearch.
"[Youth Insearch] is like the family I never had," Justin says to the circle, microphone shaking in his hands because of the drug withdrawals he's experiencing.
"It's the first time I've sat in a room of people who actually give a f*** about me."
Justin is so starved of love and affection, to him the feeling of a hug was like "a high" he would get from drugs.
It was clear Justin had made progress since coming along to the camps – "I don't want to be this person anymore" – but he was struggling to see anything other than the downward trajectory his life was on. A happy life was a foreign concept to him.
And then one of the young Youth Insearch leaders told their story.
The circumstances were different, but the themes were the same.
"Being led by other young people" is the simple secret to the program's success, Youth Insearch leader Aimee Caulfied says.
Like many of the Youth Insearch leaders, Ms Caulfield went through the program as a troubled teen – dealing with domestic violence at home, which led to anger, self harm and suicidal tendencies.
Now she and her fellow leaders use their experience to show others there is light at the end of the tunnel.
"To have a person in the same age group as you, who has been through the program, and is willing to share their story is really important," Ms Caulfield said.
"I was looking at all these leaders who had been through the same sort of things I had been through.
"I was finding out how they dealt with it and how they coped with it. I started using those people as role models."
After hearing the leader's story, Justin's mindset began to shift – here was someone of a similar age, who not that long ago was in a place as dark and low as his. Someone who, while still fighting their own battle, was living a happy and fulfilling life.
Jennie Linton, the Youth Insearch program manager leading the session, asked Justin to step into the middle of the circle. She didn't explain why, other than to say she wanted to give him a "special memory".
This was a huge leap of faith for Justin – only two hours earlier he had walked out of the trust building exercises in the previous session.
Justin laid down on the floor, face up, eyes closed. Six leaders gather around him – one at his head and feet, and two either side – to do a simple, but intense, trust building exercise called the cradle.
They got down on their knees, picked him up, and gently rocked him a couple of inches off the ground. Then they stood up, taking Justin with them, and rocked him again at hip height.
When the leaders laid Justin back on the ground, after one more rock, they gave him a group hug.
When he sat down in the circle, Justin's withdrawal shakes had stopped. He was calmer, his anger had been drained and he more open to change.
Less than three hours later at the end of the next session, which was about setting goals, Justin was dancing and singing along to Justin Bieber's Never Give Up.
He had transformed from an angry young man to a happy, smiling adolescent, if only for a moment.
Ms Linton says "it's all about baby steps".
"The move forward is ongoing," she said.
Tamworth acting magistrate Mal MacPherson says it's the only youth support program he's seen work in 25 years behind the bench – which is why he wants the federal government to continue funding it.
"I've seen young people in a foetal position on Friday when the camp starts, who are running around on Sunday, completely different people," Mr MacPherson said.
"As a magistrate, I keep seeing the same young people coming into court like a revolving door," he said.
"Locking them up and throwing away the key doesn't work for these young people.
"You need to deal with the underlying problems, which is exactly what Youth Insearch does."
The program is at risk, with the federal government yet to commit to any long-term funding. For the last five years, the charity received $400,000 a year, a deal negotiated by former New England MP Tony Windsor during his time on the crossbench.
However, when previous Prime Minister Tony Abbott restructured the Department of Social Service's grant scheme, Youth Insearch's funding stream was effectively cut.
Because of this, the government provided the program with a one-off $100,000 "transitional grant", which runs out in the middle of 2017. Since The Leader began lobbying for government to continue supporting Youth Insearch through its Kids Back On Track campaign, an additional $50,000 has been provided to see the program through the last six months of the year.
But as Mr MacPherson said: "To run the whole show, we need $400,000".
Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce organised a meeting between Youth Insearch and Social Services Minister Christian Porter in February. Mr Porter said the charity could apply for a Community Capacity Building grant, which it was previously guaranteed funding for, without going through the application process – however Mr Abbott's changes have capped the grant at $150,000.
To make up the rest of the funding, Mr Porter suggest Youth Insearch apply for a grant from the Try, Test and Learn Fund. However, it looks largely unsuitable for the program, as it is designed to help "young carers, young parents and young students at risk of moving to long-term unemployment".
Youth Insearch CEO Heath Ducker – who went through the program as teenager – said the charity was grateful for the government's support, but without a rock-solid funding commitment, its future remained in limbo.
*Name has been changed.