A graduation in life’s hard lessons

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IT was one of the more unusual graduations I have attended. No mortar boards and swish academic gowns; no dancing on the lawns with photos of proud parents before the sandstone cloisters or the dreaming spires.

Yet it probably signalled a more profoundly life-changing achievement than most academic awards.

The graduate was our grandson – Nick – and it took place within decidedly downbeat surroundings in far-off Watson where our city meets the bush.

Undergraduates, counsellors, administrators and family ranged around the plainly furnished room as one by one the people with whom Nick had lived these last few months told stories of his comeback from addict to cleanskin, from troubled teenager to responsible young man.

It was a joyous event. Tears were shed. Hugs exchanged. And afterwards we were all invited to share the midday meal of delicious curry with all the trimmings and home-made apple pie.

It was not, of course, the end of Nick’s comeback. There are still hurdles to be jumped and courses to be negotiated. But it was a remarkable step along the way and it could not have been accomplished without one of Canberra’s most valuable and little-known treasures: the Ted Noffs Foundation.

Founded by the Rev Ted Noffs in Kings Cross in the 1970s as a shelter for the homeless, the Foundation has expanded its reach and focused particularly on youngsters with a drug problem. And on the way it has developed a remarkable expertise together with a highly professional staff.

They came to Canberra in 2000 and their three-month residential program – Adolescent Life Management – uses the latest techniques in partnership with the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre. It employs one-to-one counselling, group therapy and puts special emphasis on education, jobs and sport to give youngsters the best chance to start life anew.

It started as a 10-bed residential facility, but in 2002 they added a four-bed detoxification unit to meet an urgent need.

And their record of success is up there with the world’s best.

Two thirds of their funding comes from ACT Health and the other third from the Federal Government. It’s a very clever investment because each Noffs “bed” costs $40,000 a year; whereas the alternative – permanent institutional confinement – costs $220,000.

Moreover, the savings don’t include family disruption, court costs and all the other horrors of a life on the dark side.

However, with budgets tightening everywhere, the Foundation has been hit with a funding cut that means closing four beds. There is no financial logic to it; and as a member of a Canberra family (like so many we know) where drugs have sliced into our sense of smug self-satisfaction, one can’t help but cry out in frustration.

Our lad had his chance to get back on the rails and, thank goodness, he grabbed it with both hands. But what of those four Canberra families who will now miss out? It doesn’t bear thinking about, for as Foundation manager Ronan O’Connor told me after the graduation: “Every young person has a dream. Given the right circumstances young people would much prefer to follow their dream than end up battling society.”

Very true; but it’s very hard to sustain a dream if you don’t have a bed.




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Robert Macklin
Journalist and author. Contact robert@robertmacklin.com

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