Inspiration

Power Pack | Top Blokes Foundation founder Melissa Abu-Gazaleh

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By the time you finish reading this piece, one young man, somewhere in Australia will believe that he has no future and he will attempt to take his life. It’s a hard statistic to take in.

Not a day goes by where we don’t hear about male suicide rates, death as a result of alcohol or domestic violence or even how we need to be raising boys differently. But how are we faring?

With the accelerating nature of technology, propelling social issues to magnify more than what we experienced as children, young men today are more tech-savvy, informed and their ability to detect inauthenticity is incredible. Raising young men in today’s culture has never been more challenging.

As a young woman who is passionate about young men’s health, Top Blokes Foundation founder Melissa Abu-Gazaleh knows there is still a long way to go for our country to financially, politically and socially invest in young men’s mental health and well-being.

What prompted you to start the Top Blokes Foundation?

The journey for me began at the age of 19 when I realised that far too often our TV’s and newspapers bombard us with negative news stories about young men. From alcohol-fuelled violence to reckless driving, every day we are given another reason why we shouldn’t trust or expect anything positive from young men.

But I knew that our country was giving up on young men. I wanted to work for an organisation that specifically focused on empowering boys to change their own futures for the better. But there wasn’t any. So I said what any other frustrated, Gen Y would say, ‘screw it, I’ll start something myself’. That something, was the Top Blokes Foundation.

How has the effort progressed?

10 years on, the Top Blokes Foundation works with thousands of teen boys and young men and is one of Australia’s leading boy’s social education organisations. Our strategy is simple, let’s connect young positive male role models to help misguided boys make better choices when in peer pressured and dangerous situations. Let’s create a safe and non-judgmental environment where boys can talk about drugs and alcohol, mental health, pornography, sexting, masculinity, peer pressure and risk-taking using a straight up, no-fluffiness, own your choices approach. By improving young men’s health through a peer-focused mentoring environment program helps to shine light on the gaps facing young men’s health.    

What are the sources of the problem?

The majority of the boys that we meet have no positive male role model in their lives. They come from broken families where drugs, alcohol, family violence and neglect are a part of daily life. And it’s easy to see how young men can lose their way.

If you were to stand in front of them, you might see the hopelessness in their eyes. For us, we see their potential to be transformed into Top Blokes. We’ve seen that connecting teenage boys to young positive male role models will transform their lives and stop their down-hill spiral and improve their mental well-being.

And that transformation is certainly not an overnight process. If we want to influence young men’s behaviours and attitudes, we must consistently invest in young men’s well-being to nurture their development and growth into responsible young adults. Enabling boys to make informed decisions is the key to engaging them at critical points within their risk-taking prime stage, providing windows of opportunities to alter any dangerous or regrettable decisions they may make.

But how effective is social education and mentoring in changing boy’s behaviours? In 2015, our program results revealed that 84% of young men who participate in our programs significantly change their opinions about drug use, 93% of young men learnt something new about looking after their own mental health, 80% of young men learnt new techniques for conflict resolution and anger management.

What have been some of the successes?

We’ve had boys go from multiple suspensions to none after completing our programs. Boys who aspired to a future of drugs to now have educational goals and boys who have come from a family of intergenerational unemployment, secure their first casual job simply because they felt empowered to step out of their comfort one. On the surface, these seem minor and standard, but for these boys, this impacts the rest of their future. It’s these tiny milestones that will change a culture where young men themselves, are questioning and redefining their own behaviours and feelings.

Has the work had an impact on you personally?

Over my time working with thousands of teenage boys, I have come to learn that all young men share a common hope: that their parents, teachers and mentors will give them the time of day to make their own independent, sometimes regrettable, decisions but will have you walk side by side, ready to guide them back on track.

Recently, I was recognised as NSW’s Young Australian of the Year Award. You can trust that I will certainly not lose the opportunity to use this platform to bring more focus on why we can no longer overlook the need to invest young men’s health.

Because, when we look at best ways to tackle issues like alcohol-fueled violence, suicide, domestic violence and unemployment, we easily forget to seek advice and wisdom from one group that too often, hold the key: boys themselves. They are often silenced and rarely invited to speak about the very issues that affect them. My experience has undoubtedly shown me that engaging young men on the huge social issues can and will significantly tackle the social issues and trends that we worry so much about.

What does the future hold?

If we want to reduce future rates of domestic violence, we need to involve boys as part of the solution, if we want to reduce male suicide, incidences of mental health or drugs and alcohol, we need to involve boys as part of the solution. Young men have insightful perspectives and experiences that are key to building a safer future for this country. The voices of boys is what we are missing in this equation.

You can connect with Melissa Abu-Gazaleh via http://www.topblokes.org.au

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