Schoolies Week is a time for celebration, a time when young people come together to celebrate the closing of a chapter – but these celebrations also carry with them specific risks.

More than 30,000 school leavers register for the event on the Gold Coast, with a majority coming from Queensland. Unlike school leavers from most other States, the majority of Queensland schoolies are under the age of 18.

Many of these young people are away from home for the very first time, trusted to behave as adults in what can be a highly stressful environment.

Seventeen year olds occupy a difficult legal grey area. On the one hand they are not legally permitted to enter a licensed premises; but they can be tried and sentenced as adults. Choices made at Schoolies Week can have lifelong consequences.

To help mitigate these risks, Rosies volunteers collaborate with several other community groups as part of the Queensland Government’s Gold Coast Schoolies Community Safety Response – a massive undertaking involving 19 government and non-government agencies.

The Response aims to support young people to make responsible decisions while they celebrate. A safe space is cordoned off for young people to enjoy themselves without recourse to alcohol or drugs, and young people can access vital support services as required. Schoolies are encouraged to think about their behaviour and how their choices affect themselves, their friends, and the wider community.

Preliminary data suggests that the Response works: rates of drug and alcohol use by school leavers seem to be decreasing. The culture of school leavers is gradually changing for the better.

Despite these positives, there are still specific risks for young people at Schoolies Week. Although young people may feel excited and relieved at finishing school, they may also feel a sense of loss, anxiety or uncertainty – without the nearby support of their parents and family.

Rosies actively recruits volunteers with relevant skills to assist clients with complex or high-risk needs – especially youth workers, counsellors, and volunteers with suicide intervention or first aid training.

Shannon Pettigrew first volunteered with Rosies in 2010 as a psychology student. Having since completed her degree, she’s also an experienced front line drug and alcohol worker and crisis counselor.

‘School leavers are at a crossroads – there’s so much potential ahead,’ Shannon said.

‘I think it’s important to help them through that, so they get to the other side of it ready for the next phase of their lives.’

Shannon was on the ground in 2012 when Rosies volunteers were called to respond to a critical incident.

Staff and volunteers from several organisations worked through the night to identify affected young people, offer counseling, and ensure their safety until they reconnected with their families and support networks.

‘The thing that struck me about being a part of the critical incident response was that it really wasn’t about me,’ said Shannon.

‘We managed the welfare centre and were there to meet the needs of those young people and help them decide what to do next, but it was more about facilitating a community coming together to support the affected young people.

‘Our role was really to keep young people safe until they could go home, and we did that.’

Mark Reaburn, Independent Chair of the Gold Coast Schoolies Advisory Board, said the work that community organisations like Rosies undertake at Schoolies Week is vital to the success of the Response.

‘Rosies have been an imperative part of the delivery of the Gold Coast Schoolies Community Safety Response by providing practical support services and advice to young people during the official schoolies period,’ he said.

‘We appreciate the ongoing commitment and contribution made by Rosies and their volunteer network to enhance the safety of school leavers and the local community.’

Despite this, services face increasing funding pressure. Government cuts threaten resources across the not for profit sector, and there is intense competition for grant funding.

‘There needs to be someone there for schoolies,’ said Shannon.

‘I’m fortunate enough to have the skills to be equipped to keep coming back.’

To help fund Rosies’ Schoolies Week project, click here to make a donation.

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