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Helping boys on their journey to become top blokes

August 26th, 2022

When 14-year-old Aleks is asked to describe what a “top bloke’’ looks like, he’s quick to answer. “It takes courage, and it takes responsibility,’’ he says. “To do the hard work, and volunteer for stuff that other people don’t want to do.’’

He has examples of what he means. During a camp Aleks attended as part of the Top Blokes program in Toowoomba, one of the program leaders asked the teenage boys to help set up tents. Aleks and his mate Lincoln volunteered. No one else did, Aleks says. Now he has a deeper understanding of what was going on. 

Aleks is one of 66 boys and young men who graduated from the Top Blokes Foundation’s program in Toowoomba. The Foundation, which works with boys and young men to build resilience, empathy and respect, was established in the Illawarra region of NSW 11 years ago and has steadily built its work across the nation.

Its goal is simple – to ensure that boys grow into good men, sustained by, and engaged with, respectful and meaningful relationships. But it can be challenging, with many adolescent boys struggling with self-control, anger and a deep silence that hides their conflicting emotions. The consequences of those issue can be devastating: a prevalence of mental health issues, anti-social behaviour, including violence and abuse, and suicide.

Rachel Fielding became Top Blokes’ Queensland State Manager in October 2020, and it wasn’t long before she started hearing about issues in Toowoomba. “Almost immediately I began getting phone calls from Toowoomba schools asking when we would be expanding into their region,’’ she recalls.

Once she investigated further, it became clear that Toowoomba was confronting a crisis. Local primary health network data revealed that Toowoomba and the Darling Downs had the second highest suicide rate in Queensland, the highest male to female suicide ratio - for every one female that suicides 7.5 males do - and nearly 50% of these were under the age of 35. 

“There were currently no early intervention prevention programs running specifically for young men and due to this the community were very supportive of Top Blokes expansion,’’ Rachel says. 

Rachel went to the John Villiers Trust (JVT) for help. After the early contact, JVT CEO Lea-Anne Bradley, became ‘’…an immediate advocate and champion of our work,’’ Rachel says, and JVT established a three-year funding partnership that allowed Good Blokes to launch into Toowoomba schools in January this year. 

The $280,000 grant enables Top Blokes to hire local youth workers, establish an advisory panel, start rolling out the program in schools and establish the kind of local partnerships that will ensure the program is sustainable.

Another program participant, Chris, 16, has felt the benefit of the weekly one-hour sessions that started in this year’s first school term with 12 boys who had been approached by the school’s vice-principal to take part. “We all just went down there, and we were all a bit nervous at the start,’’ Chris says. Waiting for them at the program was a young man, in his early 20s, and another man, middle-aged. There was a lot of talk, a new thing for many of the boys. Not that you’d know that now though. At the end of two terms of the program, Chris can see just how far he’s come. “We all talked about, how we’ve grown since we started,’’ he says. “I’m definitely a lot more mature.’’

Each of the boys who comes to the program has a back story.

For Chris, it was his mother’s passing a few years ago that triggered something in him: he lost focus, his schoolwork suffered. “I didn’t care,’’ he says. Other men in his family – his father and an older brother – were essential to Chris finding his way back. “Without them, I’d be lost,’’ he says. And Top Blokes added another important element. “It’s the fact of showing respect to others, to everyone…you don’t know what other people are going through,’’ Chris says. “And definitely giving it your all. Showing that you care and helping others.’’ The result is that Chris has started to see his school grades improve – from the low point, he’s now consistently getting Bs and Cs. A goal has emerged too – he wants to become a diesel mechanic. 

The weekly Top blokes’ workshops cover a range of topics, including anger management, fostering positive mental health, peer pressure, masculinity, risk-taking, consent, racism, and intimate relationships. The plan is for the program to reach 550 young males in the first three years of its operation in the Toowoomba region.

JVT CEO Lea-Anne Bradley says Top Blokes and organisations like them show how philanthropy can lead to long-term and sustainable change in country communities.

“When we work in partnership with local schools, businesses, leaders and support services like Top Blokes, we can make a real, long-lasting impact in the lives of individuals and ultimately their broader communities,’’ Lea-Anne says. 

For Aleks, the content of the workshop has also helped him revive his school grades. “They were very sub-par last year,’’ he says. Now, they’re climbing back up. And he acknowledges some of his habits have changed: he’s less interested in some of the social things he used to do with his mates, less likely to procrastinate he says. But he’s also been helped by some good male role models. Aleks’ stepfather has taught him how to cook and he has also learned how to fish. Now, he enjoys spending time, on the nearby river, throwing in a line, and watching the world.

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