The Clontarf Foundation is a nationwide non-for-profit Australian organisation that exists to improve the education, discipline, life skills, self-esteem and employment prospects of young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men. The foundation aims to prevent the build-up of negative feelings such as alienation and anger among vulnerable men through igniting their existing passion for sport and combining this with education. A large network of football academies exist across five states/ territories and work in partnership with local schools to deliver several types of engaging Australian Rules and/or Rugby League programmes. But for the boys, the Clontarf journey doesn’t stop at the end of their education, as the foundation offers support all the way through to employment. AusBN’s editor catches up with Clontarf’s CEO Gerard Neesham.
Jacob Ambrose Willson: Gerard you are the CEO and founder of the Clontarf Foundation. What has it been like to watch it grow from one academy to a nationwide force of positive change for young vulnerable males?
Gerard Neesham: It has been an incredible and humbling experience to see a relatively simple concept back in 2000 continually grow and become more sophisticated and professional over time and most importantly, reach more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander boys and communities in need.
We started in Western Australia with 25 boys, two staff members and one school almost 19 years ago and today we support 6,600 boys in 97 schools across Western Australia, the Northern Territory, Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland. We also now have 350 full-time, dedicated and passionate staff members who work tirelessly in the field each and every day to make the programme such a success.
I feel so lucky to work with and amongst so many committed people, not only our staff but also the teachers, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families, community workers and our many government and privates sector partners.
JAW: How does the organisation collaborate with local schools to ensure academy participants are provided a healthy balance of education and sport and why is this school engagement mechanism so important for many at-risk students?
GN: Our most critical partnership in addition to the one we have with the boys and their families, is the one we have with schools. We have fantastic, working relationships with 97 schools across five states/territories and to have the support of each individual school principal and teaching staff is paramount to achieving the outcomes we are striving for.
We develop an understanding of why we exist with the schools and then fit in around their education delivery, allowing the many fantastic teachers in our country to do what they do best without having to worry about poor attendance or behaviour. There is a good level of give and take and we both share the great success stories and enjoy the journey together.
We believe education is the key factor for any at-risk child to have an opportunity to succeed in life. First and foremost, they need to attend school on a regular basis and complete Year 12 which will positively impact the other ‘Closing the Gap’ indicators of employment, health and reduction in criminal activity.
It is also our belief that this is a generational problem and will take a generation or two to fix. We are regularly witnessing this in many communities where we have been operating for 10 years or more. It has now become normal for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children in those communities to go to school as that’s all they see and know.
JAW: What lasting impact do the programmes tend to have on students themselves and on the communities in which they live in?
GN: Our goal is to make stronger, more sustainable and cohesive communities. Our boys become confident men, great workmates, good fathers, husbands or partners and like any community, the more people who positively contribute, the better the community will be.
JAW: How does the foundation prepare young men for the world of work and how does it support them all the way through to employment?
GN: One of our key areas is obviously employment and we have a separate employment team around the country whose job is to prepare the boys for post-school life and transitioning into the workplace or further study.
We place an expectation on the boys as soon as they walk through the door that they will be getting a job once they finish school and we support them along the way. We take them on worksite visits to our partnering organisations, assist with CV’s, interview skills, work experience, school-based traineeships, driver’s licenses, job applications – the list is endless. Everything that my wife and I did for our four children so they each had the best opportunity to succeed in life, is exactly what our staff do for the Clontarf boys.
We have had almost 3,000 of our boys complete Year 12 since inception and so there are many, many success stories. Year on year, more than 80% of these boys remain engaged in employment or further study 12 months after completing school. As an example of a successful partnership within the resource sector, over 100 of our boys have gone on to work for Rio Tinto who are our most significant corporate partner.
What is most pleasing is that in addition to the many boys who have gone on to be apprentices, trainees, T/A’s or truck drivers with Rio, we are now seeing our boys go on to tertiary studies and completing cadetships with Rio Tinto. Today we have several alumni linked to Rio including two second year lawyers, a second year civil engineer and an OHS graduate working full-time within the business. This was unheard of five or six years ago, so these boys are continually breaking new ground.
JAW: Finally, how proud are you to have provided this platform for many generations of young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander men to escape from dangerous paths and excel themselves, and what does the future hold for the foundation?
GN: I feel extremely privileged to have worked with so many of the boys, their families and the great people in our foundation. I feel even prouder when I’m constantly reminded how far we’ve come, when I hear the great accomplishments our enormous group of alumni are consistently achieving.
Our ‘old boys’ are forging successful careers, buying houses, driving nice cars, getting married, travelling the world and most importantly – placing such a high emphasis on education and employment for their own children.
We know there are approximately 16,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait islander boys across the country who would benefit from a Clontarf programme so we still have a long way to go. The stark reality is that for every year we don’t reach a community, many of these boys’ life outcomes will unfortunately head in a negative direction.
As an organisation, we remain extremely focused on our core business of keeping these boys in school and placing them into employment and we remain equally as focused on expanding as quickly as we can to hopefully change the lives of many for the better. There is certainly no slowing down!