The Youth Camp Changing the Face of the Outback
18 February 2019 at 8:27 am
Tanya Dupagne is the director and founder of Camp Kulin, a youth program to help children in rural Western Australia affected by childhood trauma, get back on track. She’s this week’s Changemaker.
Despite warnings from friends about moving from Perth to a tiny Western Australian community of 300 people in 2013, Dupagne saw an opportunity others didn’t.
Having worked in youth camps that helped underprivileged children in the US, she knew there was the potential to do the same for kids affected by childhood trauma in Kulin and surrounding regional areas.
WA has some of the highest rates of youth suicide and mental health problems in the country, but Dupagne is equipping the kids with the skills to overcome these serious challenges, and turning them into leaders of their communities.
The camps are now nationally and internationally recognised, with families travelling 25 hours to attend them, and waiting lists of up to three years. Dupagne has recently been recognised for her work with the Westpac Social Change Fellowship, and in 2017 was named Rural Woman of the Year.
In this week’s Changemaker, Dupagne talks about how she fell into running youth camps, making an impact, and the challenges of running a rural charity.
Was there a specific moment when you realised you wanted to start Camp Kulin?
I’d never worked with kids before, and then I ended up working in a summer camp for kids at risk in America for three years, and absolutely loved it. I then spent another five years working with kids in Africa, and realised I couldn’t do anything else. I was then running a few programs in Australia, which got some media coverage, and a woman from Kulin saw it and called me asking to come check out the town.
I’d actually never heard of the town before, I had to look it up on Google maps. It’s three and a half hours south of Perth, so I drove out, and there’s this tiny little town with 300 people in town, and 900 in the shire. It had all these state-of-the-art facilities – a 50 bed hostel, a massive recreation centre, and the biggest water slide in regional Australia. But it was all pretty much unutilised, with just not enough people in town to sustain the facilities properly. And they said to me: “If they were your facilities, what would you do with them?” I told them about the program I thought I could run, and they asked me what it would take to get me to move there. Up until that point, I’d never even thought about moving to a regional town.
What did people say when you told them you were moving out so far?
A lot of people sat me down and told me what a bad move it was. I was told there were no opportunities available in regional Australia, and to look at all the opportunities I was giving up in Perth. Yeah, people actually had serious chats to me about it.
Why were you drawn to the issue of helping kids overcome trauma?
When I worked at the camp in America, I was amazed at the change we could have in a few days, that’s what does it for me. So many people say, “we need to build kids’ confidence”, “we need to teach them how to control their anger and perseverance”, but you can’t just tell a kid to do it, you have to show them how to do it. That’s what we’re doing that’s different. I think being able to have that massive impact is the thing.
What are some of the changes you see while running the camps?
We’ve had kids who come in here and are non-verbal on Monday, get up and do a song at our talent show on the Thursday night. We had a little 11-year-old boy that at the end of the camp told his mum he didn’t want to kill himself anymore. We work a lot with self harm, we work a lot with kids who are going through difficult times.
It’s also really amazing seeing the long-term changes. We’ve been running nearly six years now, and my first group of campers who came through when they were 11 or 12, have just turned 16 and 17, which is the age they can come back to volunteer. And we’ve got about 90 per cent of them who have now come back years on and they give back to the kids, because the camp impacted them so much. Watching kids no longer get suspended from school, and having them identify exactly what it was that changed it for them at camp, that for me has just been huge.
What does you day look like?
While camps are running, it’s pretty full on. We run about 12 hours of activities every day, so it is literally bouncing from one activity to the next. I’ve actually just come off our summer season, where we ran seven camps back to back. We had 221 campers and 72 volunteers in. I worked 700 hours over the course of the summer. You’ve literally got to be on all the time, because each group of kids is different, and each group of volunteers is different, and you need to find things that work for them. I have a set program, but I’m somebody that if a group of kids comes in and I think the activity needs to be something different, I’ll just change it on the spot so we can have the impact we need to have. It’s full on.
When camps aren’t running, I’m out, trying to find funding for the next lot of campers and doing enrolments for the next camp. Demand is higher than we can keep up with by far. At the moment, we’re looking at how we can cope with that demand. Families are travelling 25 hours each way to bring their kids in here, and at the moment, if you have a high needs boy, you’re looking at over three years before I can work with them.
How do you stay so positive and energised while running the camps?
I think the fact we see changes in the kids so quickly, that’s what does it. You can be having a really bad day, and then there will be a child that you haven’t been able to get through to yet, and then – we call them “aha” moments – you can just see the change in them instantly. Just seeing those moments every day, you know you’ve reached them and it makes it all worth it.
What impact has this program had on such a small community like Kulin?
I think it definitely has had an impact. The shire of Kulin is a big supporter of the program, and the local businesses have been fantastic too. We are definitely the Kulin IGA’s biggest customer. You’ve also got 221 families, who are stopping and buying food and coffee from the cafes, coming to the pool before and paying to use that, so there’s a lot of flow on benefits. It’s also really important for a small town like Kulin to have leadership opportunities available for their teenagers. Those kids can come in here as campers and then come back as volunteers and camp counsellors. There’s not a lot of regional towns that can offer those opportunities on the scale we do.
What are some of the challenges of running a rural charity?
The access to resources is number one, like extra medical support and things like that, there have been those extra challenges. When we first started, it was also really hard trying to convince people from Perth, or people from other regional towns to travel to a community as far away and small as Kulin.
One of the reasons I’ve been so excited about the social change fellowship, is it gives me the chance to connect with other people who are doing social innovation work. I find I’m quite isolated here in Kulin, it’s going to be fantastic to actually network and meet other people.
How would you say the experience of running Camp Kulin has changed you, and your outlook on the world?
When we first started, our goal was to have four camps a year, and 20 volunteers a year. Now I’m running back-to-back camps and have a team of over 200. I think it’s shown me what’s possible. You can do whatever it is you want to achieve. But I think it’s also shown me perseverance and persistence are the factors of Camp Kulin, because there have been so many hurdles along the way, and it’s being able to pick yourself back up and just go “right, that didn’t work, let’s try this instead”. I think that has been the most important thing, and shown me that I’m stronger than I thought I was.