Yarra Youth Services Bridging The Gap

The gentrification of Melbourne’s inner north has been a reality since the 1970’s when industry moved further out and housing affordability decreased rapidly.

Yet, the City of Yarra is host to some of Melbourne’s largest and oldest public housing settlements, which are a core feature in the municipalities profile.

Wilson Poni. Source: Yarra City Council

Eighteen year old Yarra Resident, Wilson Poni, has lived in Richmond in a community housing residence for over a decade and can’t imagine a better place to have grown up.

“It’s a good area, it’s safe as well.”

Part of Wilson’s love for his community stems from his participation in the council run Yarra Youth Services (YYS), located on Napier Street in Fitzroy. YYS aim to cater, not only to the 15,000 youth living in the area, but also to those who frequent it through school, work or play.

“Yarra Youth helps a lot of kids. They provide support and they give opportunities to kids to actually engage.”

YYS run programs such as fashion and textile design, artist in residence workshops, event management projects and leadership programs among many others.

“I’ve actually been through most of the programs here,” says Wilson. “When I was a kid I tried everything…The Livng It Up program is really good, it provides what we want to learn, the life skills, [which] I think are very important. Its like a short taste of what’s out there, you know.”

Although anyone under the age of 25 can participate, a large number of those involved in YYS are residents of the public housing dwellings.

Wilson is just one of many kids involved with YYS, yet his story is one with a precarious beginning, a commonality among the youth.

“My family moved from Sudan to Uganda. We were refugees from Sudan to Uganda, [now] half my family is in Sudan [and] half is in Uganda.”

Wilson spent several years with his mother and siblings in a Ugandan Refugee camp before being granted asylum in Australia.

“I remember Uganda not Sudan, I was just a baby, two or three… I haven’t been back there, but I was planning to go this year with my mum.”

In a country as multicultural as Australia, it’s no surprise that one in four Australians are born overseas. In the City of Yarra municipality, that increases to one in three.

What it is to be a youth in Australia can be an entirely different experience to that of a youth in other countries. Children from migrant families often have more responsibilities and personal freedoms can be restricted as a consequence.

“My mum is finishing study for her childcare course [and] I help look after [the kids she cares for] when she isn’t feeling well… I have to take kids to training when they play basket ball… I feel like I have to help, anyways I like doing it, it’s alright. The kids are nice as well.”

Earlier this year, Wilson was one of six selected individuals flown to the Manchester City Football Academy’s Global Young Leaders Summit. The opportunity came through the YYS Soccer Pathways program, and is sponsored by Melbourne City FC.

“Im a sports person, everything I want to do has to do with sports,” he boasts.

Wilson is studying sports development at Victoria University and hopes to become a manager of a soccer team. His recent trip to Manchester inspiring a love of travel and the idea of living abroad.

“I see myself in England managing a team in 10 years. I was there for a week, it was beautiful, [it was] the best week.”

Shaping young minds and ensuring their best possible outcome is fundamental to community development and Wilson believes YYS provides the necessary support systems.

“Yarra Youth has helped me to form what I am now, [without it] i’d be a different person.”

However, ensuring that the services offered cater to a vast array of individuals, including youth, parents and carers, is essential to the functionality of the organisation.

Cherry Grimwade, is the Youth and Middle Years Coordinator at YYS. She has been involved in the youth services sector for over 10 years and highlights their varied role within the community.

“You’ve got real pockets in Yarra of affluence, and real pockets in Yarra of disadvantage. How do you make sure a program and services you run are engaging and successful for all youth?” she asks.

From the ‘Living It Up’ life skills workshops, which teach mechanical work, cooking and boxing, to the music recording studio, which gives youth a safe place for expression, Grimwade believes it takes a variety of activities to nurture a variety of people.

“We have lots of different young people at the centre… Lots of different cultural backgrounds, [they’re] from various different sexual orientations, different age groups, different interests, involved in different sub cultures… Ultimately they are coming to those programs because they have an interest in that area, and part of youth services is to make everyone feel like they are connected and integrated in the program.”

Through free programs and transport to and from workshops, YYS aims to overcome accessibility issues, which often stem from economic hardship.

Unemployment, however, is a very real concern among Australian youth, who make up 40% of the entire unemployed work force.

According to a 2014 research report conducted by the Inner Northern Youth Employment Taskforce, a sharp decrease of entry level jobs since 2008 has further skewed opportunity vs participation of youth employment.

In the city of Yarra 26.7% of youth were unemployed in 2014, further perpetuating social and economic differences among youth.

“All young people have barriers to employment at the moment. If you’re a young person that has been born in Australia and have good family networks often your first casual job, or your job, comes from someone your family knows. For young people that live in the housing estates that’s where it differs. They don’t have those connections. [The point of] youth services is actually to build those connection points for them.”

However, the disconnect among young people can not always be measured in numbers. For some, their past experiences are harder to manage than others, and social cohesion relies on providing a safe environment for expression.

“A lot of these kids come from really traumatic backgrounds, from war torn countries , there are issues around big families living in small units, [or] not having a back garden. There are often barriers to schooling… Some of these young people have come from refugee camps, so if you’ve been in a refugee camp for 6 years your education won’t reflect your age level.” Says Grimwade

Knowing how to address these traumas and life experiences is key to the services proved by Yarra Youth.

“A number of young people are involved with the Hip-Hop program at the music studio. Through Hip-Hop and writing songs they often will write about their experiences and their histories… it means that they can start and unpack and deal with those issues.”

Wilson just finished his first demo track at the music studio, for him and hundreds of other kids who have stepped through the Napier Street doors, YYS is central to bridging the gaps that naturally occur within diverse communities.

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