Kokoda Youth Program is changing lives

May 19, 2024 BY

GYE chief executive officer Andy Brittain. Photos: SUPPLIED. BELOW: The group celebrate completing the Kokoda Track.

A RUGGED trail in the Owen Stanley Ranges in Papua New Guinea was a gruelling battlefield in World War II but is now a site of rejuvenation for teenagers confronted with a different species of danger.

Under the guiding hand of Geelong Youth Engagement (GYE) chief executive officer and former police officer Andy Brittain, young people in the Geelong Kokoda Youth Program are achieving huge goals physically, emotionally and mentally.

“It’s like a reality TV show,” Mr Brittain said.

“But you see these lives change right before your eyes, each day. And these kids go on to become leaders – cops, nurses, PSOs, physios, tradies.

“It’s a really unique experience. We’re changing people’s lives. I’m very lucky.”

GYE runs two Geelong Kokoda Youth Programs a year, each consisting of up to 12 young people from local schools and adult mentors from local businesses, who sponsor a young person and a staff member to be part of a year-long mentoring program.

Participants are all strangers at the beginning but form a new-found family by the end.

Participants are all strangers at the beginning but form a new-found family by the end.

The turnarounds triggered by the Kokoda experience can be startling. They are underpinned not just by exhausting climbs but also by history, new friends, real achievement and being welcomed into villages each evening.

Some young people begin with little self-worth, with dark thoughts about their future.

But through hard work building up their physical and mental fitness, and with a support network not only during the program but also long afterwards, they return with a new, positive outlook.

“Seeing a young person happy, smiling, having friends, off drugs, is great,” Mr Brittain said.

“Like lots of kids, they’re sometimes just searching for something,

“Increasing the risk to young people over the last few years is homelessness. Some young people are forced to couch surf between friends or access emergency housing.

“This has an impact on day-to-day tasks like getting to school or just being able to have breakfast.

“Through the generosity of mentors and supporters, the program has been able to help by arranging breakfast or lunch, sometimes for up to a year, for students in need.”

Follow-up is crucial to the Kokoda Youth Program and Mr Brittain oversees a schedule of barbecues, breakfasts, texts, calls and newsletters that draws the hikers back, especially in the first three months post-trek.

The group celebrate completing the Kododa Track.

Mr Brittain likes recruiting adult mentors from differing backgrounds to share their life experiences with program participants.

One recent hiker, Villawood Properties executive director Rory Costelloe, did not fully know what he was getting himself into.

“It was very tough, a true jungle experience, with 5am starts, trekking 10 or 11 hours always uphill or downhill, and down is harder,” he said.

Mr Costelloe said some of the participant’s circumstances could be confronting – for example, where they face domestic violence and may be too afraid to speak up for fear of repercussions.

“I don’t get emotional about much, but this was really fulfilling. You don’t normally see people change right before your eyes.

“One kid was eyes-down all the time, very quiet, but in four or five days he was starting conversations; you saw the self-confidence growing each day.”