YOUTHS at risk of disengaging are fighting back through their involvement in boxing and other sporting programs.
For the past five weeks, a group of eight Eaglehawk Secondary College students have donned the gloves at the California Gully gym of brothers Pat and Gary Connolly for an hour-long session under the tutelage of Bendigo's former Australian heavyweight champion Justin Whitehead.
The sessions are part of a pilot 'Boys to Men' program, aimed at getting the year 8 students re-engaged with education and teaching them new skills to recover their self-confidence.
Teacher Rohan St Clair said the results had been immediate.
"It's been a real positive, the boys go back to school and feel so much lighter, they feel good about things and they go back to the class and feel more engaged," he said.
"It's a real eye-opener; they really love doing it.
"They get back and feel really good about themselves, which makes a huge difference.
“We’re seeing good changes along the way with the program, the kids are really growing.”
Boxing is not the only sport the students have participated in this year.
Their introduction to the program came on the mats at the Bendigo Judo Academy, while next month they will turn their hand to lawn bowls at the Eaglehawk Bowling Club.
St Clair said the school was extremely lucky to have Whitehead come on board as a mentor.
"You can see the students all really connect with him," he said.
"We're very lucky that Justin is so keen.
"Gary (Connolly) has been great too, I've learned a fair bit from him and has a really good program set up for the boys."
Whitehead, who has a number one contender's bout in Toowoomba on Saturday night, said the program offered participants some directions and a chance to address their frustrations in a positive manner and controlled environment.
"Some of them are really picking up the skills and embracing it," he said.
"It's bringing out a bit of confidence in the boys, which boxing tends to do.
"There's also a lot of discipline involved; that's the balancing act, between confidence and discipline."
He said the door to the gym would remain open for students who wanted to continue boxing as a sport once the program had finished.
"There's one or two who have real potential to continue with it," Whitehead said.
The program has received monetary support from Bendigo-based charity the Hindsight Club, through links with members Paul Byrne and Scott Hosking, a former boxer who trained under Pat Connolly at the Vinton Street gym.
One of the participants, Josh Kuhn said the program had helped him address issues with his schooling and anger.
"I feel really calm and relaxed afterwards," he said.
"Working with Justin has been great, he's teaching us a lot of new skills.
“He’s fighting Saturday night – he’ll win easy.”