Saving lives with a big shed, a pile of dogs and an idea

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Sixteen years ago, Bernie Shakeshaft set out to save the lives of vulnerable kids with just a shed and an idea.

BackTrack Youth Works was born, and the social worker and his team have now helped more than 1000 disadvantaged young people achieve education and training while working on the land with other at-risk teens. While his legacy will be the thousands of children whose lives he has helped transform, he also has two of his own, a long-term partner and a pile of dogs!

According to Shakeshaft, Backtrack first looks to keep the kids alive and out of jail, and then helps them chase their hopes and dreams. He does this with a program that uses animal-assisted learning, agricultural skills, and a residential facility. These kids have been kicked out of home, school, even shopping centres, so one of the first things he tells them is: You can't get kicked out of BackTrack. Shakeshaft was named a local hero at the 2020 Australian of the Year awards.

bernie shakeshaft backtrack youth works paws up program working dog high jump

What was the impetus for starting BackTrack in Armidale?

It was frustration with the system. When you work in an area for 30 years, you get a good idea of what works and what doesn't. I think things are just too siloed. You can't just teach kids education - it has to be the whole box and dice. Our kids often come to us in trouble with the law, with mental health issues, drug and alcohol stuff, and family breakdowns. If we don't address all those at the same time we don't get very far. That's where it came from - it was either stop whinging about the system or do something about it.

With a bunch of volunteers and a big shed, we kicked off, and here we are, and now we're helping other towns starting up the program. The biggest surprise for the kids joining BackTrack is that somebody cares and takes the time. We do whatever we've got to do for as long as we've got to do it, and that's not always common in this field.

Can you explain more about the program?

Backtrack Youth Works is for younger kids, and Backtrack Works is a profit enterprise for young people employed in the rural businesses. There are currently 35 people employed by the rural contracting business as trainees who are enrolled in Rural Operations up to Certificate IV. They work on all sorts of contracts, including social housing, property maintenance on 18 different properties, fencing, welding and construction of cattle grids, dog kennels, and all sorts of things.

Dogs are across every part of our business now, in the classroom, on working dog trials. There are 40 dogs as part of our curriculum so we have a professional dog trainer who works with kids, and then does outreach work in small schools in the district.

We have our own classroom with a teacher trained for K-12. If the classroom is not for everyone, we mix it up and help them become employable down the track. It doesn't matter what their training is as long as it's accredited, and the learning continues. We teach hands-on skills in welding, carpentry, and the environment.

Paws Up, where you have young people train dogs to take part in working dog high jump events, is BackTrack's heart and soul. What is it about animals that helps young people?

What I hear from kids is that the dogs don't judge; they just take you for who you are. The sense of something to look after is also important but just to sit with them and the non-judging and the fun with it, how to work sheep and compete at events - it's in every part of our business.

Who have been the main inspirations in your life?

I've always had solid older men in my life who have employed me and I've certainly taken a lot of wisdom from that. I've spent a lot of time in the Northern Territory - Tennant Creek and Alice Springs - and the Indigenous guides taught me a lot about the bush and the importance of family. It was quite impactful on my life.

I was also lucky enough to meet Mother Teresa when I was 17. She was an inspiration also.

What was your first job?

My first part-time job was collecting trolleys for a supermarket. Then a few other things followed. I worked in a travel agency for six months but that wasn't a fit.

My first full-time job was down on a sheep and cattle farm in Adelong, at the foot of the Snowy Mountains in NSW.

What's the best money advice you've ever received?

Money isn't everything but I do like a saying - if you look after the pennies the pounds will look after themselves. I don't think I ever did that.

We do budgeting and bits and pieces with kids - it's just part of their schooling. But when you don't have much, what you have seems to be disposable income.

What's the best investment decision you've made?

I was lucky a few times in buying the worst house in the best street. I started off doing that in Alice Springs - did it up and moved on.

What's the worst investment decision you've made?

I think I should have held onto that place in Alice Springs even just for another five years - and that would have provided a much better return.

What is your favourite thing to splurge on?

I think it would have to be working dogs. The majority here are border collies but there are also kelpies. Also cars, dual-cab utes are what we use now.

If you had $10,000 where would you invest it?

I'd be open to investing in an ethical investment, probably in the environment. I think it's so important that we leave the place in a better place than we found it, I'm not sure we're doing that, so I'd like to do something along environmental lines.

What would you do if you only had $50 left in the bank?

I reckon I'd give it to someone who needs it more than me if I was down to my last $50.

Do you intend to leave an inheritance?

Yes, I'll leave some to my partner and kids, and some to BackTrack as well.

Would you like to see any changes in the way people look at money post-COVID?

I think COVID has brought up a lot of things. I don't see money in its own right solving complex human problems. Post-COVID I'd like to see the system being a little more equal. When poor people are paid Jobkeeper and government funding in error, they have to give it back, yet wealthier people don't have to pay it back. Finding some balance in that would be a lovely thing to see.

Finish this sentence: money makes...

... people do strange and selfish things.

Find out more: 
backtrack.org.au

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Julia Newbould is the managing editor of Money magazine and is one of the hosts of the Friends With Money podcast. She was previously editor of Financial Planning and Super Review magazines; managing editor at InvestorInfo and at Morningstar Australia. Julia co-authored The Joy of Money, a book on women and personal finance. She holds a Bachelor of Economics from the University of Sydney where she serves on the alumni council.