Matthew Evans says if the blokes from Boys to the Bush hadn’t knocked on his door two years ago, he probably wouldn’t be alive today.
Matthew grew up in Bathurst with his five brothers. When he was eight, they were taken from school and split up into foster care.
Over the next decade, he lived in five different foster homes and eventually ended up at a group home.
After leaving the group home at 18 years old, Matthew says his mental health was at its lowest.
“I wasn’t sure what I was going to do,” he said.
“I was living by myself in Orange and I was really depressed. After a few months, I attempted suicide.”
At the time, Matthew’s younger brother was participating in the Boys to the Bush program and word got back to one of the co-founders, Adam Demamiel, that Matthew wasn’t leaving the house. So he went over to visit.
“First meeting, I told him [Adam] to buzz off but they just kept coming,” Matthew said.
“At first it was annoying because I’m not the kind of person who wanted help. After a while, I saw them as mates and that’s what made it easier.”
Now at 22 years old, Matthew is employed full time as a trainee program coordinator and mentor with Boys to the Bush.
He says the program has had a huge impact on his life from helping him get his licence, finding a place to live, stabilising his mental health, to making new friends.
“I had never heard of this program before. I wish I had it when I was a little bit younger,” he said.
“It’s what struggling kids need, having adults who are not acting like teachers but are like your mates.”
Boys to the Bush is a not-for-profit charity that was set up four years ago by three former school teachers in Southern NSW.
The program is based in Albury, NSW, with services now running in Wagga Wagga, Forbes, Parkes, Bathurst, Orange and Dubbo.
Over the past four years, more than 1,000 kids have accessed the program with a 70 per cent return rate.
The program primarily runs camping trips during school holidays for boys from disadvantaged backgrounds.
In 2020, the pandemic put the camps on hold but that led to the acceleration of a formalised mentoring program.
“We were given a bit of advice to ‘put the tools down’ and ride this COVID thing out,” co-founder and chief executive Adam Demamiel said.
“But home isn’t great for a lot of the kids, so we sort of went against that advice and thought what could we do to see more of them?
“It started with checking in with regular Zoom meetings and then doing one-on-one activities.”
Adam says the mentoring is now the organisation’s core business and it is making a real impact.
“We still do the camps but the mentoring program is where we are really having systemic changes with the kids,” he said.
The organisation has eight full-time staff in different locations working as mentors, including Matthew.
Mentors will regularly check in with the kids and plan activities based on their interests.
“If they are looking for work, then we help them find work or if they are younger then we teach them how to connect with the community,” Matthew said.
“Some of the kids, they are really interested in building, so I take them to the Men’s Shed to learn from the fellas on how to build stuff.”
Adam says the community involvement and donations of money and time keeps the program running.
“We lean on our links in the community — from tradies, business owners, farmers, rotary groups, CWA groups,” he said.
The program sees close to 50 kids a week regularly accessing mentoring.
Adam says providing consistency for the kids is the most important thing.
Sixty per cent of the participants identify as Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander, 85 per cent come from Out of Home Care Living Arrangements and 90 per cent do not have a male adult living with them.
“We have set up the business to be self-sustainable,” he said.
“We don’t want to be another program that when the funding runs out so does the program.
“The majority of the kids that we work with don’t have a connection to much.
“They don’t play any team sports, school is not high on their agenda, and their attendance isn’t great.
“So for many of the kids that we engage with, this is their thing that they connect to.”
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