Healing through nature: Insight into the Berry Street Wilderness Program.

Gippsland is well-known for its varied and awe-inspiring landscapes. From Mount Baw Baw’s snow-capped peaks in winter to the Bass Coast beaches in the summer, from the calm of the Labertouche Caves to the activity of the Bunyip State Forest, Gippslandians are spoiled for choice. However, these great natural resources are used for much more than attracting tourists. Throughout the year, young people are interacting with our landscape as a place to learn new skills, have new experiences, and most importantly, heal.

The Berry Street organisation was established in 1877 as a home for unwed mothers. Over the next 140 years, it grew into Victoria’s largest independent provider of child and family services. It offers a range of services, including out-of-home care, education services, therapeutic services and family violence initiatives, to name a few. The Berry Street Wilderness Program, delivered through the local Morwell office, is a concept unique to the Gippsland region.

“The program challenges young people to achieve something they never thought they could, and come out the other side stronger, more resilient, and able to see themselves change for the better”, explains the program’s senior coordinator, Doug Moczynski.

Doug has been employed by Berry Street since 2009, when he began work at the Berry Street School in Morwell. Two years later, he transferred roles and became involved with the Wilderness Program, which, despite only running here, deals with issues facing all of Victoria.

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare’s Child Protection Australia 2017-2018 report, over 10,000 Victorian children are currently in out-of-home care. Worse still, a further 17,000 are under care and protection orders. These figures equate to 20.5 children in every 1,000 living in Victoria. The Wilderness Program aims to assist these young people, as well as those involved in other Berry Street initiatives.

The program is broken down into three key areas:

1—Single day outdoor experiences for individuals and groups

Outdoor activity tailored to those who are not yet able to participate in an extended journey.

2—Therapeutic outdoor interventions

Programs that use adventure activities to strengthen relationships between young people and their caregiver, family member or mentor.

3—Young Men’s and Young Women’s Journey camps. Nine-to-ten day expeditions that provide a holistic experience and teach skills that can be applied to their day-to-day life.

As Doug explains, “It is not important whether someone abseils or does not abseil… the program nurtures people to participate at a level that they feel safe, where they can be comfortable and open to new experiences.”

This includes people such as Jane*. Jane is a young woman that had been in and out of foster care since birth. Like many others that grow up in the foster care system, Jane’s upbringing was marred with continuous upheavals and constant instability. Due to this never-ending instability, her schooling began to suffer and she became slow to settle into new environments. Three years ago, Jane participated in the Wilderness Program for the first time. Through the program, she learned how to focus and came to realise how much more there was to life outside of her upbringing. Giving back to the program that helped her, she recently participated in the Wilderness Program as a Youth Mentor.

As the senior coordinator, Doug admits that he could not be prouder of his contribution to the program.

“Being able to bear witness to the profound impact of the Wilderness Program, watching the way different programs affect people, is amazing.”

For those sceptical about the true benefits of such experiences, Doug is also quick to contend that there is strong evidence in its favour.

“Being in nature, walking on soft grass or listening to a river, it has a biological effect. It helps us all to regulate, to be mindful, to feel calm and it can make therapy really effective quickly.”

Approximately 100 young people participated in the Berry Street Wilderness Program each year. This program, as well as a number of Berry Street programs, rely on fees, donations and philanthropic funding.

For further information on their programs, how you can be involved or to donate to the organisation, head to www.berrystreet.org.au.

*Name has been changed for privacy.


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