Reaching out to our youth

Bottom LH corner, Cathy, Pete & Anne at YDC

For 25 years small groups of Rosies volunteers have made the trek to Youth Detention Centres in an effort to show young people that they are valued and that someone cares about their wellbeing. Roises YDC outreach operates very differently from our street outreach program and gives an incredibly unique insight into our Youth Detention Centres.  

To better understand the importance of our YDC outreach, we spoke to three volunteers who travel over an hour each way to attend, and the Programs Support Officer at the Brisbane Youth Detention Centre, Tracy Shortland.  

The YDC team exists as part of the Brisbane City branch but operates very differently to our street outreach model. “We aren’t in YDC with tea, coffee, and a chat – there is nothing to offer them to help break the ice like we would on street outreach. We are just there to listen and maybe play a game if they want us to join. It can be challenging to build a relationship with the young people. We go into a wing one week and come back four weeks later and it might be all new faces – very different to seeing the regulars on the street” said Cathy a 4-year veteran of the YDC outreach.  

“I find YDC is a lot more personal than street outreach and I feel I have a closer bond with the young people. In Toowoomba there are a lot of people on outreach, and you can’t always get to know them very well, and we sometimes get busy offering food and drink but can’t talk much, especially with so many more people in need. At YDC we just sit and talk and it’s often a one-on-one experience, a lot of the young people hold their cards close to their chest until they get comfy. You’ve got to work a little harder to get to know them, but it’s worth it,” said Anne, who joined the YDC team just over a year ago. 

Breaking down barriers isn’t always easy though, many of the young people have had traumatic experiences and have been let down or abandoned by the adults in their life.

“I remember attending outreach once and for the whole hour not one of the young people acknowledged my presence, they were happily chatting with Cathy and Anne but weren’t interested in me. As I was leaving a big fella came up to me, stuck out his hand and said, ‘Thanks for coming’ and I was shocked. I hadn’t spoken to anyone, but my presence still made a difference to him,” – Pete  

Cathy, who comes from the Sunshine Coast along with Pete, had a similar experience with one of the young people. “We went into the unit and the worker said this chap probably won’t talk to you because he’s been let down by so many that he’s not gonna waste his time talking to you. That was a big reality check. I hadn’t thought about the fact that these kids had been let down so many times by people – I thought I would be a fresh face to talk with, but he’d been hurt too many times by others he just wasn’t willing to put himself out there,” she said.  

While it can be hard to make the initial connection, once the volunteers have earned a young person’s trust, wonderful things can happen. “We were in a very serious wing, no one was talking but they were doing an exercise circuit, so I joined them. I made the mistake of doing a push up on my knees and they all started shouting at me and calling me soft but it broke the ice and they were more interested in chatting then,” Pete chuckles.  

He continued, “I don’t blame them for not talking to me, we are only there for an hour, and they are used to people abandoning them so why would they give me the time of day. They think what’s the point they are just gonna leave me. I don’t take it personally. If my presence helps one kid, then it’s worth it.” 

“In the wings they have communal areas where they can play cards, watch TV, shoot hoops or just sit and talk. I’m hopeless at cards but I’ll ask if I can join them and sit and watch and they are OK with that. I always ask for their permission first though. I think it’s important that they have a choice whether I join them or not,” Cathy remarked.  

She continued, “One time I was there with another volunteer, Jodie, and the boys weren’t overly interested in engaging so we started shooting hoops. I think I made 1 in 25, and the boys were laughing at how bad I was. I didn’t mind, I am bad at hoops, but Jodie turned to them and said, ‘You can laugh but this lady has traveled two hours just to come and see you, and you don’t even want to chat.’ They were astonished – why would someone come all that way to see us?” 

It’s heartbreaking to hear that someone so young could have such a low opinion of themselves that it’s a shock that another person would go out of their way to spend time with them and show them some much needed love and care.  

“The young people like building relationships with outside community members. They are not program staff or authority figures, but just people that they can meet and play games with, people who can mentor them and that they can look up to without any judgement,” said Tracy Shortland, Program Support Officer for the Brisbane Youth Detention Centre. 

“It’s important to introduce the young people to agencies like Rosies that can support them once they are released, and the visits help improve their interpersonal communication skills, and their chances of rehabilitation.” – Tracy Shortland

Anne has seen firsthand the positive impact of YDC visits in her own family, “My foster son was in YDC, and he benefited a lot from external visitors; having a visitor that is not just family can have such a positive influence. The young people are more likely to share if its someone they don’t know – if they want to talk, they can, if not they don’t have to.” 

“We don’t encourage them to talk about their situation, the less we know, the less opportunity to judge. We don’t know their situation or how they came to be here, only that they are and it’s our role to be there for them,” Cathy continued.  

“For some, YDC is their safe space. Often, they re-offend because they know at YDC they have a bed, a hot shower, 3 meals, company, and an education. It’s awful to think that compared to what they have on the outside, detention is their safe space,” Cathy said.  

Anne shared a similar experience with one young person that she was very fond of. “I met him for the first time and he was so excited because he was getting out the next day and he was telling me about all of the things he was going to do and I felt happy for him. When I came back the following month for outreach, he was there. I asked him why, and he answered, ‘My parents are both in jail and I got tired of sleeping in a shopping trolley, so I stole a car and came back. Where else is safe for me?’ It made me so sad to hear him say that; he was too young to feel like he didn’t matter.” 

Anne continued, “I get really upset when people say, ‘Just lock ‘em up.’ They don’t understand what these kids have gone through. Some are here because they should be, but many are victims of circumstance and generational trauma has not been considered. I want to show them that there is a better way of living, that people care about them and that I am their friend.” 

Rosies volunteers often speak about the importance of community, connection and friendship shared between patrons and volunteers, but this is often built on the single common factor that these volunteers live in the area where they outreach. This is not so for Anne, Cathy, and Pete. Each month they drive an hour and a half from Warwick and the Sunshine Coast respectively to chat with young people at YDC.  

“It’s just what we do,” explains Cathy. “It is really no different from street outreach when you think about it. We travel to the hub and then from the hub to the street and then back again – it’s just part of being a Rosies volunteer. We travel to be with people where they are.” 

Pete continued, “YDC outreach is a necessity – Brisbane City is a big branch, but they were struggling to get the numbers for YDC, so I joined. Even if I had to travel an extra hour, I’d still do it. Being there is important, and as a bonus I made friends with Cathy and Anne.” 

“Volunteering with YDC can be challenging and some days you walk away in tears, but if we help one young person to feel better on that day, it’s worth it,” – Cathy. 

We are so grateful for every volunteer who has spent time with the young people at YDC over the past 25 years and for the support of the Department of Children, Youth Justice and Multicultural Affairs in allowing us to be there for young people in need.  

If you would like to support our work in youth detention, the courts, and on the street please donate now.