Keeping Schoolies safe

Encounter Youth CEO Nigel Knowles is gearing up for the organisation's Schoolies Festival later this month.
Encounter Youth CEO Nigel Knowles is gearing up for the organisation’s Schoolies Festival later this month.

Nigel Knowles is at the “business end” of the year.

Now in November, there’s two weeks to go before the chief executive officer of Encounter Youth and his seven staffers deliver the event they’ve been prepping for all year – Schoolies Festival.

The annual Schoolies Festival – which sees thousands of Year 12s flock to Victor Harbor to celebrate the end of their high school education – is managed entirely by the Christian-based, non-profit charity and its 600-plus volunteers, affectionately known as the Encounter Youth “Green Team”.

Working around the clock during the three-day festival, Encounter Youth’s specially-trained Green Team volunteers supervise and interact with school-leavers both inside and outside Schoolies Festival – doing everything from cooking free food and picking up rubbish to looking out for teens in trouble.

Before Encounter Youth began in 1999, Schoolies was a chaotic mass gathering of young people – much to the ire of local residents and the Victor Harbor Council.

But thanks to the charity’s bevvy of volunteers and its partners, including Flinders University, the SA Police, SA Ambulance Service, the Motor Accident Commission and the State Government, Schoolies has been transformed into a safe and fun three-day festival.

“We gained management and structure over something that was out of control,” Mr Knowles says matter-of-factly one Monday morning.

He speaks from a comfy old couch inside the Kings Park Community Church – Encounter Youth’s headquarters – because his office is still packed with paperwork and leftover notes from a Schoolies training weekend with Green Team volunteers.

“There’s always something to do all year round but we’re definitely down to the business end now,” he says.

“All site management has been completed, we’ve ordered the wristbands, the Green Team’s hoodies and security lanyards, and in a few weeks we’ll start setting up the site.

“For the first time we’ve also run, in partnership with Mitcham Council, a Q&A night designed for parents of Schoolies.

“A lot of parents don’t actually realise that Encounter Youth provides the most structured and supervised Schoolies management approach in Australia, so our seminars are a good way to educate parents on what they can do to prepare, but also to alleviate their concerns.”

In 2010 Flinders University became an official sponsor of Encounter Youth. Under the partnership, Flinders sponsors the Flinders University Beach Hut dance venue at Schoolies Festival and provides much-needed financial support to Encounter Youth’s Safe Partying Seminars.

The aim of the Safe Partying program, Mr Knowles says, is to inform and empower high school students with information on how to “navigate the complexities of coming of age”, including the risks associated with alcohol and other drugs at social events.

This year, more than 130 Safe Partying Seminars have been delivered SA-wide to over 15,000 students, with the program also expanding to Tasmania and New South Wales for the first time in 2014.

“It’s not a shock seminar and we don’t tell young people what to do – instead we give them facts and statistics on what their peers are doing to inform them to make safe and sensible decisions.

“We also talk about the impact of alcohol and other drugs on brain development, as well as rational decision-making and emotional responses, then look at planning and preparing for these situations.

“Flinders University has been a fantastic partner in this program – thanks to the University’s support we’ve been able to further our education in SA and now beyond.

“It really sends a message that Flinders cares for young people and wants to make a positive contribution to their lives.”

Together with valuable community partners such as Flinders, Mr Knowles says the secret of Encounter Youth’s success is undoubtedly its volunteers, all of whom are members of Christian churches in SA and mainly between the ages of 18 and 30.

“Their work isn’t just limited to the Fleurieu Peninsula – every Saturday night from 11.30pm to 6am our Green Teamers becomes the eyes and ears of Hindley St.

“They report fights to police, injuries to SA Ambulance and look out for young people in vulnerable situations.

“By reducing crime and violence, the Encounter Youth Green Team is contributing to a safer community.”

He said the ethos of Encounter Youth is to inspire all members of the community to help educate and empower the State’s future leaders.

“We used to hear a lot about peer pressure; however we think it should be called social pressure.

“It’s not just peers who are influencing young peoples’ decision-making – parents, friends, teachers and the media all play a part.

“Regardless of their role in society, every member of our community has the chance to be a positive influence for young people and help them to navigate their way through this challenging period in their lives in a non-judgemental way.”

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