When troubled teenagers meet the snow.
The rain has been falling for a good few hours. It is cold, even colder when the wind hits and a fog ensures a white out up high where some of the best snow fall in a decade has settled on the ground this season, if you could see it.
This does nothing to deter five teenagers from Albury Wodonga who are seeing, touching and riding snow for the first time in their less than privileged lives thanks to Merlin’s Magic Wand, a global children’s charity that aims to create life-changing experiences for disabled and disadvantaged children from the owners of Falls Creek.
I, however, am hungover from a rare night drinking the sky blue and emptying the fridge at Elk at Falls Creek of French champagne. We couldn’t be further apart, these kids and I.
Me with my #privilegedskierproblems and entitled middle class life on someone else’s bar tab and they with their fractured lives filled with early childhood abuse, drug and alcohol addictions, residential juvenile homes, foster families, life on the streets and prison visits to see parents who also lost their way.
I meet them at lunch time at the ski in ski out Stingray bar as they inhale burgers and fries and I just try to stay vertical. They are on a break from an all day snowboard lesson.
“It’s sick, but I am a surfer so that makes it easier” says one hyped up adolescent who lives far from the coast about his morning snowboarding. Who knows if he has really ever seen the surf or not or if fantasy is simply better than reality.
The teenagers before me are luckier than some, though that statement alone seems banal in the face of abuse.
They belong to Highwater Theatre, an arts based full time program for at risk young people aged twelve to fifteen years of age. It’s a joint initiative of the Gateway Community Health Service, the Victorian Department of Education & Training and Somebody’s Daughter Theatre Company.
Theatre, performance, story telling, yoga and mainstream education combine to build confidence and self perception while improving both mental and physical health amongst the at risk youth that find themselves in the program.
These kids have Maud Clark AM to thank for these opportunities. The Victorian College of the Arts graduate is one of the names behind Somebodys Daughter Theatre program that works with women in prison and developed further into the Highwater program.
“All of these kids will have suffered from abuse” Clark tells me. The kids are long gone, outside practicing on their boards near the lifts while waiting for their lesson to start.
“We assess each kid before they are accepted for the program, they must also be able to interact with the other teenagers already in the program, the dynamic is important. Just getting girls to have children at 18 or 19 rather than 14 or 15 is considered a success.”
She’s being humble. Eighty percent of participants in Highwater have had prior interaction with the police as offenders and only five percent end up reoffending. Eighty percent also return to mainstream education, training and employment, some attending university.
“Kids perform each other’s stories, they don’t reveal their own” says Clark. “The theatre is very powerful on so many levels for those who perform and those in the audience.”
The five teenagers in front of me have more confidence than many I have met, they chat openly with me, maintaining eye contact and sharing stories of performing their troubled tales on stage in Canberra and meeting Clive Palmer and going for a drive in his Bentley.
They love performing, hate yoga, one wants to now own a Bentley, another ‘says’ he already owns a dirt bike though I wonder where he stores it in a juvenile residential facility. They rib each other while munching on french fries and clearly can’t wait to get back outside, in the rain. I hang my head in fair weather skier shame.
I have always lamented the accessibility of skiing and snowboarding to the masses by economic factors alone. It takes discipline and courage to return day after day to improve snowboarding and skiing skills and there is an element of sheer vulnerability required to put yourself out there on two planks or a board.
But the rewards are five fold. You can’t think of anything else when you are just trying to stay upright and make it down a slope in one piece.
Start the day grumpy and a couple of runs later you forgot what you were grumpy about as the endorphins from raised heart rate and the benefits of being outdoors have been proven to help with depression.
During my brief time with these courageous teens I am consistently drawn to the only female in the group of students. She is quieter than the others, though I suspect not once she gets to know you.
We talk about learning so much about how you approach life by how you approach skiing and snowboarding. She wants to be an actress, inspired by the performance element of the Highwater program, and I hope one day I see her on the stage rather than a reality show on teenage single mothers.
With Maud Clark and Highwater on her side she has a better chance than most in her situation.