Carol Berger, a Community Development Worker, and Manager of Power Neighbourhood House, started Connecting Teens in 2008.
Connecting Teens supports young people to experience and develop friendships.
Her son, who is on the autism spectrum, was a teenager at the time and experiencing bullying and social isolation.
His introduction to other disability groups was not meeting his social needs as the disabilities in the groups were too varied, and he could not relate to the others.
Talking to some school parents, Carol saw a need and the program was born.
The program, funded by the City of Monash in Melbourne, accommodates eight participants for a younger group of 12–15-year-olds and eight for an older group of 16-18-year-olds.
Young people are often neurodiverse and have experienced challenges with social connections. The program is unique because participants are encouraged to start as 12-year-olds and continue until they graduate.
Craig Thompson, who co-facilitates the groups, has been with the program for twelve years – almost since its inception.
“It is not easy or quick for the young people to connect,” he said.
“So giving them those years to connect usually garners results. These wild young teens come into the program and evolve into mature late teens who connect with others in the group.”
Carol concurs, with parents offering feedback, like: ‘this is an absolute life saver’, ‘this is the first place our child feels comfortable,’ ‘they actually have a friend,’ or ‘they have grown in self-confidence.’
“It is so vital for someone who doesn’t have friends, to know they have a friend. It is a simple thing but such an important one,” Carol said.
Riahn, who graduated from the program last year, reflects on where she was.
“Most of the time I just sat at home, playing video games or doing something on the computer. I really struggled to find that connection of friendship,” Riahn said.
On her first night, she said: “I decided to wing it. I had to coax myself. I told myself: ‘I may be new, but I can’t make any more judgements or criticism if I am not giving this a go’.
“I did take the chance to walk into the room. I felt a little bit uncomfortable until I started to engage with everyone,” she added.
“After a few sessions, I just came out of my shell. It was my first social group I joined. After I got to know the participants, I started to look forward to coming to CT.”
Riahn, however, does offer a caveat: “If participants are uncomfortable, they don’t have to come.
“I don’t want the young person to be held back from their own decision making.”
Carol agrees: “The participants that come, they want to be there, are regular and that makes such a big difference.”
The program is for young people who live within the City of Monash.
This helps, as participants are more likely to catch up outside the program, parents are more likely to connect with other parents and help facilitate friendships.
The nights are designed to simulate a catch-up at a friend’s house on a Friday night. The meetings are held fortnightly at Power Neighbourhood House, where the young people hang out on couches, play games, and have snacks and pizza.
The nights have a laidback structure of group games and conversation to encourage interaction and connection. Some participants prefer to play one-on-one games or to have alone time.
The in-house meetings alternate fortnightly with outings where both groups combine and go to as varied places (pre-Covid) as Old Melbourne Gaol, Docklands, AFL games, cafes, ten pin bowling, movies, and escape rooms, and a Street Art tour in Melbourne City. These are designed for young people to have fun outings with each other, whilst developing social skills within the greater community.
The program celebrates new graduates with an end of year trivia night, where current participants, past graduates and their families join for a meal, trivia, and games.
“The family sees their child interacting in a social setting, the young person sees their family in a different setting, families see other families and their journeys become normalised, and the workers get to see the evolution of the individual,” Craig said.
“It is amazing how many participants say a few words when they graduate.”
Riahn, who is now studying Animation, believes 100% that the program helped develop her confidence and social skills – so much that she can connect well with her fellow students at university.
She is now also attending the newly created Connecting Teens Graduates group – this gives graduates the opportunity to organise and plan their own regular catchups.
Craig reflects on what the program has been able to offer: “There has always been a demand for this program.
“There is a real benefit in meeting the needs of the isolated.”
To find out more about Connecting Teens: https://www.powernh.org.au/connectingteens
Suresh Ruberan is a youth worker, who is currently studying a Master of Social Work. He co-facilitated Connecting Teens from 2016-18.