Concern about youths as program scrapped

Youth Connections team leader Amira Willingham. PICTURE: LACHLAN BENCE

Youth Connections team leader Amira Willingham. PICTURE: LACHLAN BENCE

HUNDREDS of Ballarat teenagers will be left in educational limbo when vital youth programs are cut at the end of this year.

The programs, designed to act as an education safety net for the city’s youth, will cease to exist, leaving some of Ballarat’s most vulnerable with nowhere to turn.

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The demise of Youth Connections and Highlands Local Learning and Employment Network will hit Ballarat hard, with hundreds of young people already on the verge of turning away from education with no support, according to youth professionals. 

Some of the city’s youth professionals have told The Courier these teenagers were often dealing with a wide variety of issues on the home front and would be some of the hardest hit by the federal government’s recent budget cuts.

Youth workers and youth service organisers are searching for a solution to prevent the services they provide from shutting down. 

Youth Connections team leader Amira Willingham heads a program which looks after more than 200 of Ballarat’s young people who are disengaged or almost disengaged from education to ensure they complete year 12 or find employment. 

The program provides a variety of services but is aimed at ensuring young people don’t fall through the gaps and end up with an education, some form of training or a pathway towards employment. 

Ms Willingham still has young people coming through her office needing help, however, after the decision to cut funding, which she described as “heartbreaking”, she was left telling the teens there was nowhere for them to go. 

“We are trying to meet with everyone and saying we may be able to guide you, but there really isn’t that support there,” she said. 

“We are becoming a society where we believe (youths) should help themselves...there are some out there who just can’t." - Amira Willingham

“When you are saying it to parents and saying ‘well we can’t take you on’ they say ‘well where do we go, is there going to be some other sort of program?’

“That is when it is hard, because you actually have to say ‘no’.”

While many believe the system deals with mostly teenagers in lower socio-economic schools,  a large number of youth using the services are from private schools. 

Ms Willingham said the idea of the federal government’s ‘earn or learn’ scheme did not take into account the diverse lives of young people across the region. 

“We are becoming a society where we believe (youths) should help themselves. We are not understanding that there are some out there who just can’t,” she said.

“You are saying unless you are able to earn, then you should be learning. 

“What do you do when you wake up in the morning and you open the fridge and there is no food and then how do you say to that young child, get yourself ready and get yourself to school and to learn for the day?

“Parents might be passed out, their family situation isn’t great and then you are told you need to be learning. That is all great in theory for the people that are capable of it.

“If you were to have a young person who has just seen mum and dad beat each other up the night before or you didn’t get to sleep until four o’clock in the morning because you were crying all night and scared and worried and upset, then you get up and you see your mum’s face and that has been beaten ... this is just a scenario, but how are you meant to get in the mindset and say,  ‘OK I have to get up and go to school’?”

No more funding is available for the Youth Connections program specifically from December 31 leaving troubled youth with only their school to rely on in keeping them in school, according to Ms Willingham, who said people in Ballarat often didn’t consider the sort of lives these young people had away from school. 

“This is the crux of it. We are assuming every child is raised in the same environment and they are just not,” she said.

matthew.dixon@fairfaxmedia.com.au 

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