Waterloo has kept a hold on Bruce Shilling. The man known as Uncle Bruce arrived in Waterloo from Brewarrina in the state’s north west for a week’s work in 2006 and 10 years later he’s still here.
Uncle Bruce is part of a close team that run Yurangai, an after school program for Aboriginal primary school for students of Alexandria Park and Mount Carmel Primary Schools.
The clients are his friends and neighbours in the local community. The kids at Yurangai are typically from low socio-economic status families. Uncle Bruce says. “They don’t have that environment at home to be able to study and to focus on school. Yurangai does that.”
After 10 years of investing in the wellbeing of local young people the program is seeing strong results. “Before I came to Redfern Waterloo you see a lot of kids were not going to school,” Uncle Bruce says. “A lot of kids were on the street getting up to a lot of bad things during the night.
“But now it is slowly disappearing. A lot of our kids are not turning to drugs and alcohol. A lot of them are going on to further study, universities and TAFE, getting jobs in the community. Those are the changes that we see.
“Hopefully these little ones can follow in their footsteps and keep going through, and break that cycle of the poverty that they are in.”
Each afternoon Uncle Bruce takes a bus to pick up the kids at the school gate. They come back to Yurangai, based at the Factory Community Centre in Waterloo. From Monday to Friday the kids will spend 30 minutes on homework followed by a range recreational programs and activities, including crafts, reading and outdoor play. The Yurangai staff keep in touch with the teachers at the school so they can track their homework and get feedback on their school performance.
The Yurangai program, funded by Barnardos Australia, centres around giving the kids the extra attention and support they need that they are not otherwise receiving at home. It is that consistent investment of time and care that has seen changes in both academic outcomes and life skills. The program supports around 40 kids, many of them right throughout primary school.
Uncle Bruce says it is critical that they work with these children as early as possible to support their success later in life. “It helps them with their progress in high school. They get into a routine of doing things and being responsible for themselves. We teach them about being kind, responsible and having respect for others. Hopefully those things stay with the kids until they grow up. Then they can build their own support networks.”
Uncle Bruce has worked with the Department of Education for more than 30 years. He regularly visits schools to provide support to Indigenous children. “Being an Aboriginal person and going into those schools and just talking to them and giving them encouragement makes a big difference. They need to see black faces, Aboriginal people in the school,” says Uncle Bruce.
As a Budjari-Muruwari man Uncle Bruce understands that cultural identity is at the core of healthy children, families and communities.
“Some of these kids some from the worst backgrounds. Some of their parents don’t have an education themselves so we try educate the kids and the parents,” he says. “A lot of kids learn about culture here and they go back and educate their parents. And encourages the older generation to learn more about their culture too.”
The transformation doesn’t stop with Uncle Bruce’s clients. “In the past a lot of the language wasn’t taught and a lot of the older people weren’t allowed to pass it on to the younger ones. Now it’s the other way around. So it’s keeping that culture alive.”
Amongst the students at Yurangai numerous Aboriginal nations are represented. “We’ve got kids from all over the states from different nations. Not only that but we’ve got kids from the island nations, from New Zealand, Samoa, Torres Strait. We’ve also got kids from Asian background. We incorporate that as well. We have people come and teach Maori culture as well. Dance, music, language. So we like all our kids to learn all the different types of culture and the different types of language from other countries.
“Diversity is so important … respecting each other’s backgrounds and where they are from. We get Aboriginal leaders from different nations. It’s so important and it helps when they get older.”
At the heart of this cultural education is identity. “It’s so important that our kids know where the come from and where they fit within society. When we talk about the Dreaming we don’t talk about the past, we also talk about now and we talk about the future. It’s never ending,” says Uncle Bruce.
Part of the success of Yurangai is the incorporation of an Indigenous model of education. “We’ve got a different way of teaching. Traditionally when a child is born they get an elder that is responsible for that child from when it’s born to when it passes away or when it gets older. So we try to encourage a lot of that stuff as well. We become an extended family.”
It is the kind of work that goes beyond the nine to five. The workers are dedicated to transforming their community and providing good role models for the kids. As part of the community their presence provides continuity and stability.
Witnessing the success of their graduates has made Uncle Bruce a strong advocate for the program. “Centres like this should be set up in all Aboriginal community because they are so important. Hopefully we can get more set up. I hope it grows right across Australia,” he says.
As a community member as well as a youth worker, he keeps in touch with many of the kids as they grow up. “A lot of them are in jobs or at TAFE or university. One graduate is about to commence law studies, another is going to the United States to study. A number of graduates are becoming childcare workers or teachers.
“They want to help their community when they get older.”
His work takes a huge amount of time and energy but it’s all worthwhile. “We plant the seed within these little kids and they go on and you see them blossom. It makes you feel proud to be a part of their life. We get our rewards at the end.”