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Strong Brother, Strong Sister, strong futures


Keeden Graham at the You Yangs

By Leith Hillard

Stand on a granite ridge at the You Yangs looking down at the flat plains extending in all directions, and it’s Wathaurong/Wadawurrung Country as far as the eye can see. This is also the territory covered by the Geelong-based Djilang Gambling Awareness Program delivered by Strong Brother, Strong Sister (SBSS), a First Nations owned, operated and youth-led service for First Nations young people.

They support eight to 18-year-olds to meet their challenges, identify and pursue their passions, and thrive through one-on-one mentoring and participation in Koori Youth Group, at no cost to their families.

Participants get picked up after school and taken to the SBSS office and warehouse where activities such as homework support, basketball, art and woodwork including cultural possum skin and boomerang burning are on offer, as well as a dinner they help prepare.

Activities really kick up a notch during school holiday programs which range from learning about water safety at Anglesea with Surfing Victoria’s Indigenous Aquatics Officer, to camping at Wilsons Promontory and Halls Gap and taking part in cultural walks with Elders.

Post-lockdown, there are about 15 to 20 regular participants and five mentors, both male and female.

Walking alongside young people

Deputy Executive Officer Keeden Graham is a proud Yorta-Yorta, Wiradjuri and Dja Dja Wurrung man and one of the service’s youth mentors. He was recruited in 2017 when he was just one year out of school, so he’s been there long enough to watch his first one-on-one mentee blossom.

‘He has his own accommodation, works full time, goes to the gym every day, cooks amazing meals and lives a healthy lifestyle,’ says Keeden. ‘It’s such a pleasure to be part of the journey with him.’

Keeden talks about ‘walking alongside’ the young people.

‘Many of the young people come to us with low confidence and self-esteem. They might have mental health issues. We build a rapport based on where they’re at. If they’re strong in their culture, we might dive straight into their stories, but colonisation has led to a lot of the young people not having strong connections to their families.’

‘We build a rapport based on where they’re at.’
Keeden Graham

While all participants are actively involved in planning youth group activities, not all of them are able to identify what they’re interested in or what their goals are. They’ve lacked opportunities and an awareness of options.

Many start to find their voice through the Foundation-funded one-on-one mentoring. In the short term, they might identify that they want to write their resume or get their driver’s licence. In the long term, it might be a desire to live independently or learn more about their family, history and culture.

Gambling harm in the conversation

‘Gambling harm comes up in conversations,’ says Keeden. ‘We’ll talk about what gambling looks like, why it’s harmful and the psychology of addiction. Some think that being an adult means drinking and gambling, but people take up risky behaviour because they feel insecure in their identity, culture and community.’

SBSS is a holistic or wraparound service: supporting a young person means supporting their family and helping strengthen their kinship network.

‘…people take up risky behaviour because they feel insecure in their identity…’
Keeden Graham

A psychologist is available on site along with direct access to counselling and other support services without having to detour through a GP. A family services worker can work directly with parents and family issues, including gambling harm, while the confidential mentoring relationship remains intact. Their mentors are ‘their person; their guide and their advocate.

‘There might be food insecurity in families or not enough money for school shoes,’ explains Keeden. ‘There might be a lot of trauma, and gambling can be a way of not dealing with mainstream environments.’

The service’s culturally-safe prevention and early intervention approaches don’t focus on the obstacle – gambling – but on living physically and mentally healthy lives.

‘What is the young person’s purpose,’ continues Keeden. ‘Once you have your purpose, health, identity and community, you feel your strength in belonging.’

Strength in belonging

That brings us back full circle to the You Yangs.

While it’s a site where the mentors bring young people for guided walks to learn about bush tucker and try mountain biking, it takes on particular significance for those in their late teenage years.

‘They come to feel the impact of knowing where they fit in…’
Keeden Graham

‘Elders will conduct smoking ceremonies and cleansing ceremonies which create a safe environment,’ explains Keeden. ‘Some young people have faced a lot of stereotypes about being Aboriginal and they’ve dealt with trauma, shame and stigma, all without having that connection to ancestry, culture and country.

‘They come to feel the impact of knowing where they fit in and being really proud to be Aboriginal. They feel part of the community.

‘Seeing that shift is an amazing thing.’

Strong Brother Strong Sister was funded by the Foundation in 2019 to deliver the Djilang Gambling Awareness Program, and is part of the First Nations Gambling Awareness Program.


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