AS INDIGENOUS teenagers from the Northern Territory, Dominic Barry and Shane McAuliffe have seen, first-hand, the good and bad sides of Aboriginal communities.
Alcohol abuse, unemployment and poor education were part of everyday life in their communities as they grew up.
Throughout their lives, they have played witness to an often misunderstood side of Australia — that of outback Aboriginal communities.
Now, as teenagers, they can see the troubles that cripple their communities and those close to them.
However, also entrenched firmly in their blood is binding family values, which are often far stronger than those of average Australian families.
They are on a mission to make a difference, not just in their own lives to break free of common perceptions, but in the areas in which they grew up.
Both play representative Australian Rules Football for the Northern Territory and both have a dream of one day breaking the sterotype that surrounds many indigenous community members.
The duo is part of a 30-strong contingent of Aboriginal students currently at St Patrick's College.
With students ranging from year 7 to year 12, the college's Indigenous Education Program has been running in its full capacity since 2008 and has provided a number of Aboriginal boys with opportunities they would otherwise have not imagined.
Some boys are relative city slickers in outback terms, such as Dominic from Alice Springs, while others come from the most remote of communities, where barely a word of English is spoken.
In Ballarat, they can be years behind their fellow students in terms of academic skills and most have had little exposure to a typical westernised world.
One of the boys, who is desperate to make the most of such an invaluable opportunity and help those back home, is Shane McAuliffe.
Shane, 15, had lived in Darwin and most recently Tennant Creek, a place he said he would not want to live again.
Tennant Creek is about 500 kilometres north of Alice Springs and has been plagued by an alcohol problem for decades.
The town of 3000 has become well known for its "Thirsty Thursday" law, which at one time, banned the sale of take-away alcohol every second Thursday — the day welfare payments were received.
The law was scrapped in 2006 and there have since been new calls for it to be reinstated.
"It's, um, its not a good place to live," says Shane.
"There's really nothing there, no sports, education isn't good there, everyone drinking every day."
The St Patrick's year 10 student is relishing the opportunities outside of Tennant Creek that St Patrick's has given him.
Although he has no desire to return home permanently, he hopes to help reverse the disturbing social trend.
"I'd love to go back there to see my family, but I couldn't live there, because like I said, there is nothing there," he said.
"(I want to) become a leader of the community and talk to them and let them know that drinking is not going to get you anywhere."
Statistics relating to indigenous education in Australia, particularly the Northern Territory, are alarming.
Less than one third (31 per cent) of Aborigines aged between 20 and 24 have completed year 12, compared to 76 per cent of non-indigenous Australians, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
In 2004, 83 per cent of Aboriginal students across Australia reached grade 3 numeracy benchmarks, but in Northern Territory, just one in five reached that level.
And just 13 per cent of Aborigines who did not advance past year 10 at school are currently working full-time.
But St Patrick's takes them in to try and help them "reach the stars", says indigenous education manager Rick Balchin.
"A lot of the boys come down here and they're very shy and timid and they are only used to their own areas, only used to being around family members and community members," Mr Balchin said.
"A lot of the community boys, the ones that live in outback communities, are really low in terms of their literacy and numeracy and also their comprehension of the English language."
At St Patrick's the Aboriginal boys attend their own specialist classes, but also participate with the other students in normal classes.
The program was originally spearheaded by Mark Waddington, who is no longer with the school.
The importance of education is not lost on Dominic Barry, who is currently completing year 12 at St Patrick's.
Compared to a number of indigenous youth in the Northern Territory, Dominic has had a reasonably structured life.
He has been through the Alice Springs school system, but also spent times living a traditional Aboriginal life as a youth.
His mother does not speak English and Dominic speaks the native Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara languages, as well as English.
At times as a child, he would miss school for weeks on end, as he went "out bush" to spend time with his family.
However, he managed to balance his time, between education and family tradition.
"Because my cousins and all that have only ever done up to grade 7 or 8, then they kind of don't really do much with their lives," he said.
"You see how far education can take you, they've been restricted without education. It's got my cousins, who are 19, 20 or 21 and in white terms, they haven't been successful.
"They think getting a pay cheque of $250 is massive in the terms they are coming from. That thought drives me to keep going further and further."
Dominic said many people back home dreamed of luxuries that existed in the "white world", although many were unwilling to work for it.
He and Shane are two shining examples of the positive impact the Indigenous Education Program has on the lives of many young indigenous boys.
However, as college headmaster Dr Peter Casey admits, there are cases when it simply does not work.
Among the hurdles that have to be jumped is a reluctance from Aboriginal communities to hand over their sons to a Catholic school.
"There seems to have been a bit of bio-resistance or reluctance on the part of local (indigenous) communities to come back to church-based schools because of stolen generations," said Dr Casey.
"It's a matter of sensitivity too, because we don't want to be seen as a big brother or welfare institution."
Unlike other schools that run similar programs throughout Australia, St Patrick's does not put its incoming students through rigorous testing before they arrive.
Instead, it evaluates the needs of the student and the community from which they come, while not charging them tuition fees.
"We don't filter the boys, we accept them on the request of their community. Other schools put them through rigorous screening, because they don't want them to fail," said Dr Casey.
Mr Balchin agreed.
"We target boys from areas that really need it, whereas other schools might want boys that are going to help the school," he said.
There is no doubt there have been cases where things have fallen apart.
Dr Casey spoke of a group of four boys from Wadeye who were simply unable to adapt to the structures and lifestyle at the college.
They returned back to their communities after a brief stay.
There was also the instance of another student who spent more than four years at the college, only to depart just shy of completing his VCE.
"What do you call success? He had four-and-a-half years with us, has that been a good thing? Has it taught him a few things? Is he set for life? Time will tell," said Dr Casey.
"The best part of it is when you see somebody like Dom, who has come along in leaps and bounds. I would put him down as a streetwise kid when he arrived, but he has just developed in terms of his self- confidence and it's heart-warming to see."
From all indications, poor indigenous education and employment results are going to exist for a long time to come.
There is a mountain of work being done to rectify the shortfall across Australia and the results are starting to become apparent.
And, as small as St Patrick's College's impact is in the grand scheme of things, there is little doubt it is transforming the lives of indigenous boys now and will continue to do so into the future.