Bringing hope to Wauchope
Friday nights in Wauchope used to be all about groups of young people roaming the streets, looking for something to do. But a youth program run by the local Uniting Church has changed that. A recent four-day excursion to Sydney demonstrates that this community outreach initiative has provided a significant blessing to many.
Wauchope is situated on the Mid North Coast of NSW. It sits within the southern part of the State electorate of Oxley – NSW’s poorest electorate. Its population of 6,000 is comprised predominantly of the elderly, low-income earners and those on benefits. Unemployment is more than double the national average.
Around 20 per cent of residents have completed the HSC or equivalent. The school drop-out rate and unemployment are very high. About 5 per cent of the population identifies as Aboriginal — around double the national figure. For Aboriginal youth in this area, glimpses of hope are not always easy to come by.
Several years ago, the local Council and two middle-aged UCA ministers (Elizabeth Raine and John Squires)came together, to provide something for Wauchope’s younger people. The Friday Night Wauchope Youth Program offers free, enjoyable and engaging activities in a safe environment. Initially run by the Council as a pilot program, the Wauchope Uniting Church has since taken the reins and has been running the program for the past 12 months.
At its heart, the program aspires to provide young people with an environment free from alcohol and drugs, at a time in their lives when they are highly vulnerable to harmful and anti-social behaviour. It also seeks to provide positive role models for young people and to build self-esteem.
The group meets at the Church on Friday nights during school terms. It is an outreach of the Wauchope Uniting Church: to “love our neighbour as ourselves”, to “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly”, and to put into practice our commitment to be “uniting for the common good”.
Those involved with running this youth program know it’s not always easy to talk about the good news with someone who may not have a lot of good news in their lives. Also, it can be difficult to talk about a God who loves you like a parent, with someone who is a ward of the state. At times, then, there is no viable alternative to practicing what you preach as a role model. Finding ways of providing experiences that might give a glimpse of God’s kingdom, and something greater than the lived reality. So, the idea of an excursion for the 20-plus young people from the Wauchope Youth Group. This special four-day excursion to Sydney took place during the January 2015 school holidays.
Fourteen Congregations from across the Mid North Coast Presbytery contributed financially to the excursion, along with a number of enthused individuals. Uniting Venues gave a generous discount for food and lodging, and Pittwater Uniting Church designed a creative program for the young people to attend. This strong support ensured the trip’s success.
The excursion was designed to include educational opportunities and enjoyable moments. “We wanted to expose the young people to a part of society outside of what they have known,” says Rev. Raine, who organised the excursion.
“We feel it is important to provide positive role models, and inspire these young people to aim for something greater in their lives,” she continues. “A number of those who came on the excursion come from families that lack positive role models (especially male role models). We have been trying to offer positive experiences and good, clear role models for them. The excursion was an opportunity to offer some of this enrichment in their lives.”
The group of eight girls and 12 boys was escorted by youth workers Rachel Rhodes and Adam Meyers, as well as Wauchope Uniting Church’s ministers, Revs Raine and Squires. Thanks to the Pittwater Uniting Church, the young people from Wauchope had a number of adventures. They went swimming at “Summer Bay” from the TV show Home and Away (in real life, the place is North Palm Beach). There, they learned about surf rescues and resuscitation techniques.
All the boys — and the girls who attended — had a great time at a football clinic with David Vaealiki, a former first-grade rugby league player. They also enjoyed time on the basketball court, and recording their own songs at the studio at Pittwater Uniting Church. These activities were graciously provided, and paid for, by Congregation members.
Over 90 per cent of the youth group identify as Aboriginal. The four-day excursion also included a trip to the Australian Museum’s special exhibition on Indigenous Peoples and the Sea. “The young people were very engaged with this exhibition”, says the Rev. Dr John Squires. “An important part of our regular program is to work with local elders and encourage the young people to engage with their culture and traditions.”
For those who led this excursion, it underlined the importance of just “hanging around” with young people.
“It is very easy, in Church life, to place the emphasis on joining up, getting involved, attending meetings, and running like crazy”, says Rev. Dr. Squires. “The notion of just being with these kids, hanging around, being ‘a presence’, is a little strange, and somewhat unfamiliar to me. But this is precisely what they valued most of all.”
The four days provided an opportunity to offer a Christian presence, to build relationships and to share experiences. For the youngest boys in the group, the evening swimming sessions in the pool were the highlight. “We believe that building strong relationships is the foundation for a resilient ongoing program,” says Ms Raine.
“We were really pleased with the whole trip, and feel we have achieved the goals we set out to. It was important to provide a safe, affirming environment for all the kids. We also wanted to inspire them to aim for something greater than what their present situation offers.
“Most of all, we wanted to show each of the young people that they are valuable individuals, and that they matter to us, and they are loved by God. We consider that this is just a very simple way for us to live out our Christian faith.”
Elizabeth Raine and John Squires