Kids Just Wanna Have Fun
23 May 2016 at 9:41 am
Dean Cohen is a young social entrepreneur who founded Flying Fox; an enterprise dedicated to providing fun and inclusive opportunities for people living with a disability. Cohen is this week’s changemaker.
In 2014, age 22, Cohen founded Camp Sababa Melbourne to provide fun experiences for people with special needs, respite for families, and disability care training for young adults. Since then, Cohen has trained hundreds of Year 12 graduates to volunteer in camps and to work in disability services, and he has also founded The Best Bunch, an online florist that provides an employment opportunity for people with special needs.
Flying Fox combines all the projects together to provide a comprehensive network of fun and educational opportunities for people with special needs.
In this week’s changemaker Cohen talks to journalist Wendy Williams about creating life-changing opportunities for people with special needs and why he is one of the fun guys in disability.
What made you want to work in the Not for Profit sector?
It wasn’t so much that I wanted to work in the Not for Profit space, as much as I kind of just fell into the disability industry after working with a couple of people with special needs that definitely had a profound impact on me and the way I live my life and the way I interact with people. I also just realised that there were so few opportunities for people with special needs to have fun with their peers and to just do the same things that every other kids does, like go away on a camp. So it wasn’t so much for me working in the NFP space it was more developing a passion for disability and running with that.
How did you start out?
That was the funny part, because – we were probably 21, a small group of us – we didn’t realise that you can get a lot of support to start up organisations. So we did things like registering the organisation and getting tax deductibility and all of that, and all of our strategic planning, really without too much professional support. But what we did do was we sought out some disability service experts and we just got advice from people who had done it before. We got together, there was a small group of people- friends of mine – who were all passionate and interested in disability and we just decided to run a camp.
We found families in our local area that really needed the opportunity and we also then found Year 12 students from some schools in the area who were interested in volunteering and we trained those Year 12s up, got some professional support for the first camp and made it happen.
How has it evolved from that first camp to become Flying Fox?
It started off just with the one camp, and then we expanded by just running more and more camps. We ran the first camp and then we were only planning on running another camp 12 months later, so from one summer to the next, and all the parents turned to us and said that their kids had such a good time on camp and the volunteers turned to us and said well we want to do this again, and we decided to make it happen sooner.
So we played around with ideas for a while, we worked out that we can do things like taking small groups of people with special needs away with small groups of volunteers to a holiday house on the coast somewhere, we realised that’s actually a really easy program to run. So this year we’ve run two and we’re planning on running another three or four. Really if we get the accommodation, if there are enough people offering up their holiday houses then we can run that literally every single weekend of the year.
Then with the bigger camps, we just found new groups of people who really needed this opportunity, we like working in local communities, we like knowing that we can have ongoing relationships, and facilitate ongoing relationships, between our volunteers and our participants, after the camp as well. We haven’t figured out too well, how to do that, we’re working on that, but we do know that our participants, the thing that they are craving most is socialisation and just the opportunity to keep developing friendships. So going from running lots and lots of camps to running those camps and then facilitating friendships afterwards is a real priority of ours.
What are your current priorities?
Our main aim is to have fun. We are the fun guys in disability. We don’t want to run therapy or anything like that, or life skills, although making friends is obviously a really important life skill.
We are the people who want to just provide fun opportunities, it’s the stuff that we all take for granted, it’s the opportunities to make friends and to just have a good time in a relaxed environment that a lot of people with disabilities don’t get. That is our number one priority. We like doing that with people with special needs our own age.
Over this past weekend we had five girls with special needs go away with five girls who didn’t have special needs, who supported them, but really it was just a girls weekend with 10 people going away for a couple of nights. That’s our number one priority, it’s the fun. What comes with that is also obviously supporting families, because if we are taking their kids off their hands for a couple of days then the parents get a break and that is really cool for us, and through coming away with us the participants develop life skills, they develop their independence, they learn how to look after themselves and hopefully if they keep coming back and keep hanging out with us, they are setting themselves up for a much more independent life long term. But that is definitely secondary to having fun.
Are those objectives being met?
Completely! It’s a funny one, because if we sit down and – as a bunch of young people ourselves – we think about what we want to do, then it’s kind of an easy aim to achieve. If we spend five minutes on it, because all we do is we organise fun things that we would want to do and we engage people with special needs to have fun with us.
It is never us planning something for anyone else, it is planning things that we enjoy and that we want to do with our new friends who happen to have special needs. It is actually a pretty easy aim to achieve and so far we have definitely been achieving it, we just need to make sure that we find the balance between providing these opportunities for large quantities of people with special needs and balance that out with making sure we are developing really meaningful relationships and friendships with every person that we come into contact with.
What challenges are facing your organisation?
The biggest obstacle has probably been, up until very recently, gaining the trust of the families. I am 24 and I am the person who is overseeing the organisation. It has been a little bit challenging for parents to trust us and that is completely understandable.
A lot of the parents that we work with have never let go of their kids before, their kids have never slept away from their parents, so for them to send their kids on a camp with us for five days/four nights is a big step, so we need to make sure, as we knew before, that we are not just focusing on the young people we are working with but that we also focus on developing really strong relationships with the parents. Because the parents have a real say in the way their kids live their lives, and if we can gain the trust of the parents then we can show them how much their kids can actually achieve and we can help them raise their standards and their hopes and dreams for their kids.
As an organisation obviously challenges come with making sure we are having a real impact. I went to Nexus and I listened to Elliot Costello speaking about the merger between YGAP and Spark. Mergers are not necessarily the next thing that we are looking for at the moment, but the conversation did open my eyes to removing ego from the question and making sure that you are doing everything in your power to achieve your aims and to have an impact on the people’s lives that you are working with, so it’s a really interesting question for us making sure that we do have that impact and that we are open to every single opportunity that is put in front of us, to make sure that we can have an even greater impact than we are now.
How do you find leading an organisation at such a young age?
I definitely think that it is a good thing that we are a bunch of young people running this organisation because up until recently, disability services had been quite old school. So we can come here and we don’t have to do what’s been done before, we can operate quickly, we can try and fail and try again, and we can do that with the energy and passion that we’ve got as young people.
For me personally, the biggest challenge with my age probably comes from leading my own team, from leading people who are my own age, when I don’t have a lot more experience than them, I’m not necessarily more credible or more anything, than the people I work with. And trying to be a leader in that capacity is definitely a challenge, but we all respect each other and we all work together as a team anyway, so there haven’t been too many problems there.
It was huge. Just seeing that there were other young people out there who are passionate about different things, but are just as passionate as I am about disability and working with young people in the community, that was seriously eye-opening. All of a sudden there were these partners who weren’t my competition, they weren’t people who were competing against me, they were people who wanted me to achieve and I want them to achieve.
To develop those networks and make friends with other people who were way more capable than me, was really motivating, because it showed me how much I can achieve. Like, the girls from PROJECT ROCKIT were there – PROJECT ROCKIT do all the anti-bullying stuff in schools – and Rosie and Lucy [Thomas] are 30 now, and seeing what they have achieved but them being in the same program as me, learning the same things as me and sitting next to me as a peer, as an equal, was unbelievable. And then obviously connecting with the Foundation for Young Australians and all of their networks, I don’t know if we would have been able to do things like start up the Best Bunch without that experience.
The connections that they provided us, including practical things like setting us up with some funders, but also just meeting people who could advise us on different issues and help us overcome some hurdles was life changing for us and the organisation.
You talk about being so passionate now you are young, what is going to keep you motivated?
It’s an interesting one, I don’t think that anyone should be working in the one space, doing one thing for their entire lives. I’m sure there will be new ideas and new projects and opportunities that come up and I am definitely open to those shifting my focus.
For now, I am 110 per cent passionate about the stuff that I am doing and so are all the young people working with me and that probably just comes from the fact we are having fun, it is not like we work hard for 12 months for a camp and the camp sucks or we dread going on it, we work hard and then there is this huge amount of fun that we get to have. We’re planning for a big camp coming up and we spent the day planning the activities and we were stressing, “how are we going to make sure we can do swimming and we can do bowling in the one day?” That is really cool, that’s really fun. How can we make sure we go on the flying fox and do gardening? Do we have enough time to have as much fun as we actually want to have? It’s a really cool job. It’s not a hard thing to be motivated for.
Do you see yourself staying in the Not for Profit sector for the rest of your career?
Absolutely. I think I am lucky enough in that I live in the south eastern suburbs of Melbourne where I can be supported by the entire community to do this kind of stuff, I am fortunate enough that I don’t have to slog it out in a job that I hate. I’m lucky like that.
Just because of my upbringing and the position I am in right now, being fortunate enough to have fallen into an industry that I am loving so much, I can’t imagine that I am going to be doing anything else any time soon, besides working in the Not for Profit space. And, there is just so much that needs to be done.
It is probably that the balance between competition and collaboration is far more weighted to competition. People not being open to working together because they are protective of their own databases and their own projects and their own branding and all of that. I think listening to Elliot Costello speaking at Nexus was definitely an eye opener that that concept that collaboration is a good thing.
Competition is also a good thing, that is the way the business world operates. And if i’m running a charity and I open up across the road from another a charity and the one that was there before all of a sudden doesn’t get any funding because we get it all, maybe it’s because that first charity wasn’t doing their job properly. So I really get that competition is important and needs to exist, but imagine if we could go up to that first charity and say we have some ideas about how you could do things differently and we are ready to stand up and put our name to what you’re doing and to work really hard to make sure we can have an impact together. I think that could go a long way to achieving a lot more good than is currently being achieved.
I also think that the social enterprise developments are really good, everyone wants to make their own money but we also need to be funding more traditional charities too and that’s been a really interesting challenge for us. A lot of people have wanted to give us money towards the Best Bunch, but as we started up the Best Bunch, people were a little less inclined to give us donations for the rest of the Flying Fox programs. That has been really interesting to have those conversations with funders and try and shake them up a little bit to make them aware that actually all of our programs are equally important. They are not all as profitable as each other, but they need to be supported equally because we are doing good things across the board.
What is the future direction?
The future is the opposite of what I just said! The future is making sure that we can make our own money and be financially sustainable as an organisation. Turning our training program for our volunteers into an accredited program to make sure that we can connect with government agencies and we can be providing our volunteers with a piece of paper that says to them not only have I had a great experience but… I can stick around and work in disability services into the future if I want to. That’s really important to us, and making sure that we don’t have to say no to anyone. If anyone knocks on our door and says we want to have this fun experience but we can’t do it because society is telling us we can’t, I want Flying Fox to be the guys that will make that happen.
So far we haven’t had to say no to any ideas yet and so we are really keen to keep that going and make sure that everyone, in at least in Victoria but hopefully Australia, knows that if they have got something fun they want to do in disability, we are the guys that you should come to.
You were awarded the Ron Castan Young Humanitarian Award in 2015 and you are a Finalist for the Victorian Young Achiever Award, how does it feel to be recognised for the work you are doing?
It’s really cool. Obviously we don’t do this stuff for awards but the awareness that the organisation gets from the awards is the best part of it. If our team gets recognised for the work that we are doing and our work gets recognised and more people with special needs and more potential volunteers and more funders know about what we are doing and want to get on board, then that is amazing. Obviously it is still very nice, I don’t think anyone in the world will say that it’s not nice to get called up on stage to receive an award, but that’s definitely not what’s its about.