There has been much discussion about the impacts of the past 12 months on the Bellingen Shire Community. But how are our kids faring? Is there enough consideration being given to their wellbeing or how today’s messages are being processed by the younger generations?
Dorrigo Youth Centre Coordinator Erika Munan thinks about little else. She is a ball of energy and fierce advocate for Dorrigo’s youth. As a mother of five children herself, she is totally in tune with the needs of kids, in the absence of judgement or fixed agenda. In fact, it is her warmth and appreciation of young humour, pranks and popular culture that has seen the extraordinary growth in youth numbers at the Centre since her arrival. She is quick to tell you she’s loud and always around in town, but equally prepared to wrestle tricky issues for the Youth of Dorrigo.
Erika what brought you to the region?
Six years ago my husband David and I decided to leave the rat race of Brisbane and settled in Deer Vale with our three younger children. We sought a quieter, more meaningful lifestyle for our family.
What motivated you to get so involved with the Dorrigo youth?
We quickly became aware of the absence of any activities for Dorrigo youth outside sport etc, and this was particularly true for the 15 to 18 year olds. Any facility that opened after five in the evening was licensed.
Dorrigo is geographically isolated with no public bus (the Dorrigo Community Bus goes to Coffs and back once a week at certain times midweek). Many of the kids here are isolated, living in outlying areas and completely reliant on the school bus or parents for any transport.
David and I became members of the Dorrigo Drama Club and joined the Old Gazette Film Society (OGFS) at the Dorrigo Gazette Theatre. We saw the opportunity to start a youth cinema night to fill the gap. With the OGFS, we instigated ‘Movies on the Mountain’, a once a month free movie night at the theatre. We made sure we covered all the bases. As movies were free, the kids were given paid memberships, so they could come as a society. The film society absorbed the screen rights and payments. We provided supper for the kids free of charge. Over 100 kids attend Dorrigo High, at least 40 of these attend our once monthly film night.
We have high expectations of the kids. They eat snacks in the theatre but are more than happy to help us clean up at the end of the night. We show them respect and expect the very best from each of them and that is exactly what we get.
We got to know all of the local youths, so it was a bit of a natural progression to become a volunteer at the Youth Centre.
What does your work at the Youth Centre involve?
Initially I volunteered on the invitation of Fran Clayton, long term supporter of the space. The Centre has operated for 25 years largely on a volunteer basis, and with history of past Organisations having staff looking after it. It became obvious to the group to form a Steering Committee and that a dedicated coordinator was needed. The Neighbourhood Centres of Bellingen Shire (NCoB) took over control of the Centre and hired me one day a week in the coordinator role two years ago.
The Centre opens one afternoon a week. My role is to ensure that there is at least two adults present for these afternoons, which may be a Mission Australia 360 Outreach Youth Case Worker or a volunteer. When required a counsellor from Bellingen Youth Services will also travel up the mountain.
We have a loosely structured routine for the afternoons. Kids arrive, throw their bags in the corner and then we feed them first! NCoB contribute for this, but we also rely on local donations. After food we all sit down and have ‘check in’, which is as much about listening to others as it is about talking and sharing. They instigate the topic, and will often ask for a ‘weather’ report- it can be much easier to express issues this way.
The Centre has attracted so many more youths since you became coordinator two years ago. Why?
I suppose that having a Steering Committee with a lot of energy and our passion has helped. I’m hired for one day’s work but I’m usually working on or in the Centre up to seven days a week; good community development is 24/7! I see the children in every forum; they know me just as me. I’m not a youth worker; I don’t have an agenda, which does mean they will open up to me more readily sometimes. And of course, I will refer them onto youth caseworkers if deemed necessary.
When I started here there were only four to six youths attending. At the end of 2019 we organised an experience day for Year 6 students attending Ebor, Dorrigo and Dundarabbin primary schools, who all came for the day to see what we were doing and what we could offer. Since that time we often had up to 22 Young People coming every Wednesday. Of course, The Covid lockdown put an end to that but we have reopened as of last week.
Have you witnessed more angst amongst the youth due to events of the past year?
Absolutely. It’s a hard time to be a teenager anyway. But our youth on the plateau have lived through the bushfires, school closures, which exacerbate isolation, and the stresses affecting their parents now with Covid.
We witnessed a lot of displaced emotions during the fires, as helplessness resulted in frustration. We had many more kids presenting at the Youth Centre, but for those more isolated, that wasn’t even an option. It is interesting during an event like a bushfire. Some people are directly affected and understandably distraught. For those not directly effected, there can also be feelings of secondary guilt that are very difficult to express for both adults and youths.
The inability to get to school during the fires and again during the Covid lockdown meant that daily structure was lost, and with this momentum, again impacting the more vulnerable students. Unfortunately it can be more difficult to keep an eye on the wellbeing of the more isolated youth, but we make sure that kids know to check in via the social media grapevine.
What measures have you introduced to deal with the heightened emotions you’ve witnessed over the past year?
During the bushfires we would do big cook-ups with the kids at the youth centre. It is one thing to sit and talk, a total other thing to chop onions together. When we stand side-by-side doing something methodical it sparks conversations and the kids are much more likely to disclose how they are feeling.
Covid has made things much more difficult. When you are in the same room there is support gained just through eye contact and the kids can feel held. For weeks we didn’t have that. We did a weekly zoom meeting but it wasn’t as successful as hoped. It may be that this generation don’t meet up for the sake of it, but rather for an activity or purpose and it’s possible that’s why the movie nights have always been such a success.
Funnily, one of the first things we introduced two years ago was WiFi, despite being told the Centre had managed for years without it. I know that this generation will sit side-by-side texting each other and it’s our job to work with that. If you have Wifi, the kids will come. If someone is having a bad day they might sit outside and jump on the Centre’s Wifi. That’s OK. I’ve sighted you and know you’re OK.
During lockdown we made sure we were contacting through all social media channels, Facebook, Instagram…even Tik Tok (against my will!). This way we have been able to check-in. I won’t comment on stories, but if I’m worried about anyone or perceive they are in danger to themselves or someone else, I will act.
What other initiatives have you introduced during your tenure?
I’m a firm believer in the need to up-skill our youth. On three occasions a local barista came to the Centre with his coffee machine and the kids learnt how to make a good coffee, which is such a necessary skill if they want casual work.
We work closely with Community Drug Action Team (CDAT). ‘Our Youth Our Future’ was the theme at last year’s Dorrigo Agricultural Show. The Show Committee supported us by giving the Dorrigo Youth Centre two stalls to operate, a food and a coffee stall. The kids designed menus, worked out costings, paid off the costs, paid themselves and then donated any further profits to the Youth Centre and Dorrigo High School. It was a great success and provided the kids with a business they were proud of.
We have also offered a Tafe ‘Safe Food Handling’ Course in partnership with Chess Connect, again to build life and work skills. We have also had school holiday programs. Joe Newton has provided guitar lessons and we even ran a graffiti workshop with Joel Supple.
With guidance and support from NCoB, the Steering Commitee were successful in securing a grant for a Dorrigo Youth Bus, which will enable a coach with Volunteer drivers to go to the usual school bus routes around Dorrigo and its surrounds at 5pm every Wednesday for the next two years. This has faced a slow start because of bushfires, Covid and the closure of the only service station in town, but we are hopeful this will start soon.
Do you have any further dreams for the Youth Centre?
My biggest aim is ongoing continuity. This means that the Centre can’t be reliant on any one person to continue operation. We now have a great steering committee of five people, two of which are consistent volunteers at the Centre. This means that regardless of who is coordinating, the Centre will always be open at least one afternoon a week. My dream is for a well-oiled team into the future.
I’m always hoping for more volunteers. Intergenerational support is essential and this works both ways. Volunteering is so rewarding for the adults involved. Volunteers do need a Working with Children Check, but that process is relatively easy. My dream is for 52 volunteers so that I know there is always a volunteer available, every week of the year and this in turn means that at least 52 people have spent a few hours a year with our Youth, and they in turn will know 52 new people in the Community.
I suppose I would also like a bigger centre with wide-open spaces and playing fields that could function as a community centre for all. This is sorely missed in Dorrigo. Money is always the issue. At the moment we rely on Grants, public donations from the local community and the Bellingen Youth Hub are very generous. However, it is also my dream that we become part of the Council’s DNA, seen as an essential service, so that we don’t need to scrounge for money, but rather focus on youth programs.
I’m pretty loud and like to spread the word, which makes me a bit of a presence around town. I’m the squeaky wheel and prepared to wrestle for the needs of the youth.
Donations to The Dorrigo Youth Centre can be made at: