It’s a sunny late winter morning in Maldon and dozens of Bendigo high school students are milling around just off the main drag – chatting, shooting hoops, hanging out.
The last lot of holidays ended weeks ago and the next break isn’t till next month, so it’s a school day, but while some of these youngsters have frustrated their teachers with their truancy in the past, they’re not playing hooky today.
There’s a heavy police presence too, but no one is in uniform and the students are not in trouble.
Instead, Bendigo sergeant Len Ladner has spent the past three days leading the students, from Eaglehawk Secondary College and Weeroona College Bendigo, though activities like hiking, rock climbing and mountain biking in an effort to build bridges between local law enforcement and the next generation of adult citizens.
It’s the first time in a decade Bendigo police have led one of these camps, after re-establishing the local Blue Light committee, of which Sergeant Ladner is the current vice-president, in March, and he says the results so far have been impressive.
The camp, and other Blue Light events held in the region during the past few months, have provided an opportunity to press reset on the relationship some young people have with police and change old attitudes towards authority figures in general.
“I think it’s a massive difference, just to see police outside of their normal role, obviously there’s a bit of a stigma when it comes to police and a lot of these kids aren’t exposed to police in this kind of environment – just to see us play games and have fun,” Sergeant Ladner says.
“Not only police, but adults [in general] can be seen as authority figures and there’s that lack of trust on occasions as well and one thing we’ve done on this camp is we’ve built a lot of trust between the kids, the police and the other adults that have helped us out.”
Coming from a private school, it’s not something that I suppose you see too often, but obviously coming here, it’s opened my eyes to see that there are people going through that.Harry Keck
For Weeroona College Bendigo year 10 student Josh Gutteridge, the camp was simply “an opportunity to come and try something new”, but at the end of the three days under Sergeant Ladner’s wing, the 16-year-old found his outlook had in fact shifted to an extent.
“It’s a bit more relaxed when they’re here, they're not in uniform,” he says.
“I'll look at everything differently [from now on], it’s opened my eyes a bit more – I suppose [to] how society works, how the mind ticks.”
Weeroona College chaplain Carl Rusbridge also tagged along for the three days, and he says while it was hard to judge what sort of long-term changes would eventuate – and nothing would happen overnight – the camp provided an opportunity for the students to show leadership and “challenge themselves in ways they thought they maybe couldn’t”.
“We’ve just come back form a hike up to Mount Tarrengower this morning – there was a lot of whinging this morning – but they got through it and I think they were pretty proud of themselves when they got back,” he says.
“We’ve had a student here who we’ve had a lot of trouble getting to school, so the fact he’s come on the camp is actually really positive and hopefully that builds a pathway where he feels a bit more confident to go back into school and education, but I guess time will tell.
“We’ll try and keep that relationship up with the police for more little projects like this to take place and hopefully for this to be an annual camp for students to look forward to.”
But as well as the students selected by their schools as likely to benefit from the Blue Light program, others from more affluent backgrounds also joined in.
They were chosen to act as mentors to their younger peers and found the camp was as much a learning experience for them as for the students they were asked to lead.
Girton Grammar School year 11 student, Harry Keck, spent the three days trying to be a role model and set a good example for his public school counterparts, but says in many ways he learnt more from them than they did from him.
“Seeing the way other kids live and where they’ve come from and hearing some of their stories, I suppose it does show that life’s not all easy-breezy sometimes and there’s people facing bad situations,” he says.
“I found that encouraging to see how these kids have been able to come out of that, lot’s of them are really good kids but just with some really poor backgrounds so I’ve found it rewarding for myself as well.
“Coming from a private school, it’s not something that I suppose you see too often, but obviously coming here, it’s opened my eyes to see that there are people going through that.”
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And if Sergeant Ladner has his way, the Weeroona chaplain will get his wish for the camp to become a more permanent fixture on the region’s social and educational landscape, with the results speaking for themselves.
“Just from seeing them at at the start until now, a few kids were a bit stand-offish and a bit nervous, I suppose, and over the three days, even on the first day, everyone opened up and most of the kids have told us about their lives and just opened up and had fun with us which is great,” he says.
“It’s been such a success the committee are really passionate about doing it again and similar events as well, not only the camps, but we’d like to make the camp an annual event if we can.”