A group of young children stand in a room choosing paint colours

How a small town is working to heal its youth mental health crisis

A small town on the south coast of Western Australia has come together to transform the residence of a former police sergeant into a safe space for young locals.

The house in Bridgetown, 258 kilometers south of Perth, was to be demolished.

But a concerted community effort instead saw a 21-year lease approved for the Blackwood Youth Alliance (BYA), to support children in the area.

The cumulative impact of COVID-19, a major bushfire emergency earlier this year, and the unexpected death of the town’s valued GP have sparked significant mental health concerns within the community.

Chief executive Lisa Burgess said the mental health of many young people in the city was “awful”.

“We recognized the need for a safe space for young people to come and connect, enjoy some activities, learn and grow,” Ms Burgess said.

A catalyst for change

The house has a shaded front garden, relaxation and games rooms, as well as a therapy area where visiting counselors and specialists can meet young people.

A middle-aged lady sits in a brightly colored room with chairs and posters
Blackwood Youth Action Executive Director Lisa Burgess in one of the breakout areas of the new BYA home. (ABC Southwest WA: Ellie Honeybone)

A youth-only gymnasium will be serviced by local coaches and volunteers, while the entire facility will support the continued education and development of children and adolescents.

“In the kitchen they can come for a Vegemite sandwich, but we also hope to offer independent living skills and cooking classes,” Ms Burgess said.

“There is an outdoor area where there will be a pizza oven and barbecue, as well as aquaponics and vegetarian patches.”

Ms Burgess said the property couldn’t have been more perfect.

“I can just imagine it: kids sitting outside in the sun, the music is going to blare, ice cold poles and drinks, you come and eat something,” she said.

A brick building with a large tree in the front yard.
The BYA House is centrally located in Bridgetown and within walking distance of the high school. (ABC Southwest WA: Ellie Honeybone)

With the group potentially supporting around 3,000 local young people, the house will be structured to cater to different age groups.

“You can imagine that a 24-year-old doesn’t necessarily want to date a 12-year-old and we understand that,” Ms Burgess said.

“We have the youth neighborhood there, there are a few kids hanging out in the new skate park and we have a lot of sports-oriented kids.

“But not everyone is athletic, not everyone skateboards, and not everyone goes to the library.”

A room with sofas and a rug on the floor
This space inside the BYA house will be used for therapy and appointments with specialists. (ABC Southwest WA: Ellie Honeybone)

An alternative to the skate park

The design of the house, down to the color of the walls, was created through a mix of youth consultation and donations from local businesses.

Eighteen-year-old Lex Wright helped paint the house.

“It’s nice to see there’s a space for kids that isn’t the skate park or the library,” he said.

“I saw it from start to finish, when there was nothing and now it’s almost over.”

BYA hopes to secure funding for a bus in the near future to help serve outlying towns, while two smaller vehicles have been purchased to help local children learn to drive.

A small white car with a large BYA logo parked in front of a brick building.
Young people can access the BYA car to complete the hours of driving necessary to obtain their license. (ABC Southwest WA: Ellie Honeybone)

“One is automatic and the other is manual, so we make sure our young people get their hours, because we don’t have public transport,” Ms Burgess said.

“We have mentors who will take them for a ride.”

House ready to welcome a new “family”

Featuring brightly colored murals and an open layout with lots of windows, the BYA house will aim to be a welcoming space for everyone when it officially opens this weekend.

A small kitchen with a mural of a sun on the wall.
The bright and welcoming dining room.(ABC Southwest WA: Ellie Honeybone)

Ms Burgess hopes other cities and communities will take a similar approach to helping their young people connect.

“We will record all of our results and make them available to anyone who wants to hear them,” she said.

“Our kids are so proud, they’re so excited and they’re incredibly grateful.

“A young girl came on Monday and I took her into the house and she cried.

“She’s just keen to share the space and contribute, and now we know a youngster feels safe and comfortable coming here as far as I’m concerned, we’ve already won.”

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