Guest Blog- Rachel Small writes about BackTrack

Last Tuesday 30th August, myself and SkillsOne cameraman Hugh were lucky enough to have the opportunity to travel up to Armidale and film a segment on the Back Track program, created by youth worker Bernie Shakeshaft. 

Back Track is a not-for-profit organisation made up of four integrated programs; PawsUP, AgLads, Iron Man Welders and the newly developed BackTrack Girls Program.  The aim of the programs is to offer support to disengaged youth and to reconnect them with training and education.  Over the course of the day, we were welcomed into the world of BackTrack, introduced to the various aspects of the programs and how they work, and given the opportunity to chat with stakeholders in the program, community members, the youth-workers, as well as the boys and girls themselves.

One of the things that stuck out most to me about the program was the amazing environment of trust, and the desire to become actively involved in the programs that Bernie and his team have managed to create- no mean feat, as anyone who has worked within the youth work and social services sector can attest.  A particularly poignant moment for us came at the end of the day, when filming one of the activities Bernie runs with the youths called ‘Circle’.  In this activity the boys are asked to start off by rating their day on a scale of 1-10, before being asked a series of involving questions such as what they find hard about growing up in Armidale, how they think they are perceived by the community and how they wish to be perceived.  The aforementioned level of trust and respect for the program was clearly evident in their honest and, often heart-wrenching answers.  These are kids who are looking for genuine change.

Paws UP, the pioneer program at the heart of BackTrack pairs each boy with a working dog which they are responsible for training.  The boys not only train the dogs in working the farms, but also in show jumping- a task which aims to build their sense of discipline, self confidence, as well as developing their presentation and communication skills.  Beyond the surface however, lie even more intricate workings.  Whilst watching the impressive jumping display at Armidale High School, Jen -program coordinator for BackTrack- talked to me about the messages they are aiming to instil through the training.  The boys, she tells me, are instructed always to look up to the top of the jump when instructing the dogs - “they must always be looking up to the sky, aiming high otherwise, we tell them, the dogs will never make it.  How can they expect the dogs to make the jump if they’re looking towards the ground, thinking negative thoughts?”.  Another of the rules of training is that there must always be one or two boys ready at the base of the jump to catch the dogs if they don’t make it- “the boys know that if the dogs fall to the ground, they’re not going to want to jump again.  In this way we’re saying to the boys that we will never let you fall- we’ll always be there to catch you”.  These sorts of instructional metaphors, paired with the natural bond felt between the boys and their dogs, are what have worked together to create such a unique program.  The Paws UP boys currently hold the Australian Dog Jumping record, a title which was taken out at the 2009 NSW Masters Working Dog Titles in Gloucester and has not been beaten since.

In addition to their achievements on the dog jumping circuit, the boys also gain skills and training through the Iron Man Welders and AgLads programs.  Working at the program’s welding shed, as well as with local farmers, the boys gain on-the-job training and education in skills such as welding, fencing, harvesting, and mustering - with the intention of working towards certificates and apprenticeships which will lead into skilled employment.  It is this work that really appears to have gained the community’s recognition, with many local farmers and skilled labourers requesting the help of the boys and offering their own time to help out with training.  One of the remarks made by various members of the group during the circle exercise was that they believed the community looked down on them, and saw them as ‘no-good’.  However an exercise that has gone a long way in turning these preconceptions around was when the boys volunteered their services to numerous farms in the Mingoola region after the floods this year- installing $60,000 worth of fencing and assisting in the general clear-up- an achievement which they name as one of their proudest to date.

There is no doubt that the BackTrack programs work- having spent a mere five hours with the crew it was clear that this was more than just a development program.  BackTrack provides a sense of family for these kids- a support network that they had not previously had access to.  The program recognises that the standard school structure does not work for everyone, and that those who don’t flourish in a classroom environment will flourish in other ways.  Foremost, BackTrack provides these kids with the confidence to believe in themselves.  As stated by Craig -a contractor who volunteers his time to train the kids in the operation of excavation machinery- “It just works, there’s no other way to say it, it just works”.

For further information on the BackTrack program, check out

Rachel Small is Project Coordinator at SkillsOne TV