BackTrack – giving kids a second chance

The latest addition to SVA’s national Venture Philanthropy portfolio, BackTrack is a great example of multifaceted services – education, health, employment, housing and justice – working together to support the needs of young people. Founder Bernie Shakeshaft explains more about the program’s approach and how it’s putting hundreds of Australia’s most vulnerable youth on the road to a brighter future.

Like its straight-talking founder, Bernie Shakeshaft, BackTrack’s mission statement gets right to the heart of the matter: ‘to help as many young people having a hard time as possible’.

With a focus on disadvantaged 11 to 19-year-olds from rural and remote communities, the educational and life skills initiative has made considerable headway since Bernie first set out on this path in 2005.

From an initial cohort of seven boys, BackTrack has now worked directly with more than 1000 vulnerable young people, primarily in Armidale, northern NSW, where the program is based.

By providing practical and emotional support and the opportunity to engage in positive activities relevant to their regional context, such as working dog training, welding and agriculture, the program enables at risk youth to stabilise their lives, developing self-esteem and skills for work along the way. Almost nine in every 10 of those who have come through the program are now in employment or further education.

Tackling multiple risks

The challenges faced by BackTrack youth reflect the full extent of regional disadvantage. Many of them have fallen out of the school system, are without secure or supportive families, have high levels of psychological trauma and are often caught up in the criminal justice system.

Bernie credits much of the program’s success to its multifaceted, flexible approach and to the fact that it doesn’t put a time limit on a young person’s rehabilitation.

‘Every program we’ve started at BackTrack has come from a gap in the system,’ he says. Providing a safe place to sleep is the number one priority for some of his kids and BackTrack’s residential facility – the farm – can accommodate up to eight with two extra emergency beds. ‘If you don’t have somewhere safe to stay, nothing else matters.’

From there, services vary according to a young person’s needs, but typically, Bernie says, ‘When a new kid walks through the door we spend half the time on legal and mental health issues. Twelve months on we’ll focus more on their education, then further down the track a large portion of time is spent getting them into a job. It’s not possible to do this in a 26-week program – our kids stay for as long as they need,’ he says.

Building a home, not an institution

Around 75 per cent of the young people engaged with BackTrack are from Indigenous backgrounds and the program draws on traditional Indigenous ways of working with people to promote positive behaviours. Chief among these, says Bernie, is cultivating a sense of belonging.

Kids voluntarily opt in to the program and while they largely find their way to BackTrack through word of mouth, it’s this sense of community that keeps them coming back. ‘They need to feel that kind of family connection,’ he says.

To help promote this, Bernie says, ‘We start with a clean slate – we’re not judging them on their past, we’ve moving from the past to the future.’

Encouraging its youth to show respect and take responsibility for their own actions is also a crucial part of the BackTrack journey – and it’s here that Bernie’s characteristically no fuss style also shines through.

Instead of rules, there are agreements and these are put into writing in their own words. ‘The young people name it and own it and we hold them to it – you muck up, you fix it,’ says Bernie. ‘But you can’t get kicked out of BackTrack.’

Changing perceptions

The program’s non-judgmental approach extends through to its alternative learning program, which enables kids to remain enrolled in the education system or receive a practical and relevant education aligned to employment and life pathways.

In the ‘Paddock’, as the BackTrack classroom is known – away from the traditional school environment and the negative associations that go with it – kids are encouraged to have a go in what Bernie describes as a ‘shame-free environment’.

‘If you can’t read at all you can start by reading to one of the dogs – you don’t have to read to other people,’ he says.

Time in the classroom is complemented by time out in the workshop or in the field gaining practical skills. ‘Every activity from fencing to dog training contributes to their academic achievements.’

‘We’re like a normal school with a normal curriculum but we don’t teach it in a normal way – we do whatever’s needed and this flexibility is a very important part of it,’ he explains.

Alternative learning programs such as dog training contributes to BackTrack youth participants academic achievements.

Positive outcomes for communities and individuals

Without looking at the evidence, Bernie can see the impact his program is having in Armidale by the number of former BackTrack boys and girls working in local businesses, or married with kids of their own, all contributing to the community. He says Armidale is also one of only two LGAs in NSW experiencing a downward trend in juvenile crime, with a 55 per cent reduction in local crime instances involving youth.

Meanwhile, an evaluation by a collaboration of researchers from four universities is showing marked improvements in participants’ wellbeing after only six month’s involvement in the program. Among other findings, results show that rates of severe psychological distress have halved, and multiple suspensions from school have reduced by 70 per cent.

Under a new three-year partnership, SVA Venture Philanthropy will support BackTrack to build on its progress to date. ‘This will help us secure permanent funding for the programs we already run and allow their expansion,’ says Bernie.

SVA’s support will also enable BackTrack to impart learnings and methodology to youth workers and community groups in other rural and regional areas. In fact, Bernie and his team of seven are already mentoring local bodies in Dubbo, Condobolin and Lake Cargelligo, in western NSW.

True to the BackTrack mission statement, the aim is to help these communities – and eventually more furthur afield – establish their own BackTrack models, giving yet more kids who are having a hard time, a second chance at life.