Saving young lives

    Amy (left) with her youth worker Lucy Dahill
    Amy (left) with her youth worker Lucy Dahill

    Jenny Barlass

    A whole world of young pain and anguish is being relieved through StreetWork

    It’s early morning and Amy is huddled under an awning near Hornsby station, back against the rain, avoiding the looks from passing commuters dashing to work.

    Hungry and chilled to the bone, the 14 year-old ponders her next move before her day unfurls in the usual round of drinking, hunger, dodging police and hanging out with other dispossessed kids. It wasn’t what she wanted, but it’s how she found herself.

    It could be Redfern, it could be Blacktown. But this is Hornsby – and she is one of an estimated 50 homeless or “at risk” youth which hovers in the shadows of this area and in fact most council areas across Sydney

    Today, with StreetWork’s intervention and ongoing support, Amy’s life has turned around and now a chilly morning will find her heading to work in a warm cafe in the next suburb.

    Having dug deep and found inner strength and courage, 18 year-old Amy has bigger plans with a uni course next in her sights. This was an unimaginable goal just a few years back.

    Streetwork is a Chatswood-based not-for-profit operating since 1980 with branches in Manly, Willoughby and Hornsby and covering a vast geographical swathe from the Harbour Bridge to the central coast, as far west as Rydalmere and across to the Northern Beaches.

    Remarkably the not-for-profit relies totally on donations to fund its $750,000 annual operating costs, with no recurrent government funding. So it’s crying out for more funds to help more kids.

    It effectively rescues kids as young as 11 and up to 18, affected by mental health issues, suicide, crime, violence, unhealthy relationships, social isolation, homelessness, those no longer allowed in the school system, or impacted by drug and alcohol abuse.

    Through its KickStart mentoring program, it reaches out to 200 young people a week, saving government agencies an estimated $8 million a year according to a PwC report. A multi-pronged approach involving skill-building, crisis management and aftercare helps ease them back into their new life, after graduating from their voluntary KickStart Programme.

    A team of eight youth workers perform one-on-one mentoring, promotion of life skills, healthy eating, budgeting, shopping, and collaborating with external agencies like FACS, Juvenile Justice and Centrelink as well as drug and alcohol counselling.

    Sometimes it’s as simple as finding them a bed or something to eat. Frequently though it’s about providing accommodation or someone to talk to, to prevent a serious or life-threatening outcome when self harm is a very real way.

    “It’s about walking next to them,” says Amy’s youth worker Lucy Dahill, “and the results are reduced re-offending behaviours and substance misuse and other risk taking behaviours, improved self esteem, and social and personal relationships.”

    At just 13 Amy had seen more of life than any teenager should have – bunking off school, drinking wine from “a goon sack”, hanging around Hornsby, getting into fights, shoplifting, being banned from shopping centres, getting arrested and spending nights in a police cell.

    Hand in hand with this went feelings of worthlessness, rock bottom self esteem, and a fearlessness beyond her years born out of a need to survive on the streets by day, returning home late at night to worried parents.

    Not suited to conventional education, she was in and out of various Asquith and Hornsby schools. Finally at her fourth school Amy plucked up the courage to call StreetWork. “I was disgusted with myself,” says Amy. “I needed to change my life and get it back on track.”

    With Lucy’s help, Amy went on a retail course at a TAFE. But fear and acute shyness still hindered her ability to get work: “I was so scared – there was no way I could just walk into a shop and ask about work. StreetWork helped my confidence and helped with CV writing and how to present myself for interviews.”

    She landed a job at a Wahroonga cafe, saving enough to buy a car and get her driver’s license. Now she has her sights set on business or event management at TAFE.

    “StreetWork has made me a better person,” she says. “Now I can think things through – I can chat with my mum and we don’t fight anymore.

    “My youth worker Lucy has been like a guide, a big sister and a mum all rolled into one. I’m looking forward to my future.”

    StreetWork results snapshot

    Suicide: StreetWork saved seven lives in 2016, with early intervention. “For one life saved it’s a community saving of $6million per person, so that’s $42 million in saved costs and productivity losses,” says StreetWork CEO Helen Banu.

    Back to school: 38 people re-engaged with education in the last 12 months

    Substance abuse: Youth substance abuse accounts for 20% of all presentations to emergency departments. StreetWork turns this around: “It’s never completely stopped but we help to see it reduced with safer practices used like safe sex when high, and needle exchanges.”

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    If you or a young person you know needs help, contact StreetWork on  9419 7559. www.streetwork.org.au. If you would like to donate, do so via the website or come to one of their events – the Christmas dinner is on November 11 – for more information contact StreetWork.

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