Early this year, a former Alstonville High School student started work as an apprentice chef at a local eatery. For most kids, starting an apprenticeship is a pretty big deal. For this student, the milestone represented a complete turnaround.
Halfway through 2020, when the student was in Year 10, he was referred to Connect Northern Rivers Inc., the organisation that provides support, guidance and assistance to help North Coast students either complete their education or find work. However, in order to help, Connect staff first have to be able to get in touch with the student, something that was easier said than done in this case.
“It took a lot to engage this student. There were at least four or five failed attempts to meet with him,” says Anna Toole, a Youth Engagement Coordinator with Connect.
Finally, a couple of months after the initial referral, the student called Anna and the pair arranged to meet up. A short time after, Anna travelled to Alstonville High School where the student opened up about the difficulties he was having at school.
“As soon as he knew that I wasn’t from the school, and that I was there to help him do what he wanted to do, he was happy to talk,” recalls Anna.
“He was very open and honest with me in that initial meeting. He said, ‘I don’t like school, but not because I don’t know anything, it’s just because I don’t fit in.’”
Well-spoken, independent and a genuine ace with computers, the student felt that he didn’t quite fit the social profile of the school. The sense that he didn’t belong coupled with his anxiety led to the student becoming increasingly disengaged from school. Despite his various talents, he was always in trouble or on suspension. In fact, on the day Anna first met him, the student was scheduled to meet with the school principal later that day to discuss his rapidly shrinking list of options. In the end, he didn’t need that meeting.
“I just said, ‘what do you want to do?’ And I told him that he needed Year 10, whether that was through school or TAFE,” says Anna.
The pair quickly hatched a plan to apply for some traineeships in computer-related fields, look at a tertiary prep course and get some part-time work. Despite the enthusiasm of two potential employers, the traineeships didn’t pan out mainly because the student didn’t have his driver’s license. However, he was successful in getting a part-time job at a popular local cafe. Three weeks in, the owners offered him an apprenticeship. It was a bittersweet moment for the student who was convinced that his mum wouldn’t let him take up the offer.
“Mum describes herself as old-fashioned, and she was definitely not on board with the idea,” says Anna.
Not to be deterred, Anna arranged to meet with the student, his mum and her partner. Over the course of the conversation, Anna explained that the apprenticeship was a great opportunity and that a Certificate III could open doors to further study. As it turned out, the student’s mum didn’t need much convincing.
“She could see how his mental state had changed with the part-time job and improved even more since starting the apprenticeship,” says Anna.
It was a case of mission accomplished for Anna and the student. A few months later, on 12 May 2021, the student exited the Connect program, grateful for the support he’d received and keen to make a go of his apprenticeship.