Trekking towards a bright future

Amy And Fellow Trekkers
Amy And Fellow Trekkers

In 2018, 17-year-old Amy Leach conquered the gruelling 96km Kokoda trail, one of the hardest hikes in the world, calling it a moment she will ‘never forget’. But it was a different moment one year earlier – the moment that began the journey towards this enormous achievement – that truly changed her life forever.

“I was having a really hard time at home,” says a now 20-year-old Amy who was then in Year 11 at Northern Bay College, Corio. “My mum suffers from severe mental illness, and I was hurting myself a lot, but I didn’t know how to reach out for help. Then my teachers saw I was struggling and nominated me for the Geelong Kokoda Youth Program. This moment began to turn my whole life in the right direction.”

The Geelong Kokoda Youth Program is run by Geelong Youth Engagement, an organisation that improves the futures of young people between 15-18 identified as ‘at risk’ youth in the Geelong, Surf Coast, Bellarine, Colac, and Golden Plains regions. With 50 percent of the state’s suicide deaths of boys under 18 occurring in the Geelong region last year, mental health intervention is a major priority for ensuring a positive future for Geelong youth. Each year, 16 young people are selected to undertake an open-ended program which involves personal development, physical health, mental health, and role modelling with stable and genuine support. It culminates in the Kokoda Trek in Papua New Guinea, however support is still available after the participants come home.

For Amy, the bonds she formed through the training, which included everything from mentoring to long hikes on Surf Coast beaches, helped her realise she was not alone. “Connecting with other young people who were all going through something really hard made me feel more normal,” she explains.

But it was the hike itself, an extremely challenging multi-day trek over mountains and through torrential rain, that taught Amy what she was capable of overcoming.

“The hike scared me every day and what helped us all finish it was the family and support we’d built together. Since completing the trek I’ve been so motivated to strive towards much bigger things in my life.”

CEO of Geelong Youth Engagement, Andy Brittain, says the program is designed to give young people the confidence needed to reimagine their lives.

“A lot of these kids will never have completed something before this, whether that’s school or sport,” explains Andy, whose former role as Youth Resource Officer for the Geelong Region with Victoria Police drove him to improve the futures of young adults. “They have good intentions but because of their circumstances they don’t have the chance. Now we can say to them, ‘Congratulations, you just walked the third hardest trek in the world. Now you can do anything’.”

Geelong Youth Engagement runs and is developing other programs to support at risk youth, but without any government funding the organisation relies entirely on community support. Geelong Youth Engagement recently received a $30,000 grant from the Geelong Community Foundation and is also the recipient of this year’s $75,000 Adroit Insurance & Risk Capital Grant. Read more about the Adroit Insurance and Risk Charity Golf Day, which will take place on March 17, here.

Andy says that Geelong Youth Engagement couldn’t help young people like Amy without support from organisations such as the Geelong Community Foundation. “They have just been incredible to us.”

As for Amy, her story is far from over. Her future is bright. “I have so many goals and so many things I want to do,” she says. “I tell myself, ‘Now you’ve hiked Kokoda, what can’t you do?’”  Andy says it’s incredible to see how far Amy’s come. “Amy was a kid who had a lot of challenges and she needed to be given a break,” he says. “We gave her the tools and now she’s completely changed her life’s trajectory. She’s put herself on a path that means success is inevitable for her. I’m so proud.”