Children and teenagers who suffer social disadvantage are being offered a way forward to a healthier life thanks to the LARF program, Julie Houghton reports.
LARFing is good for your health. And for youngsters in the Victorian country town of Ballarat, it can make the difference between learning to lead a wonderful life or falling between the cracks.
LARF—Life skills, Activities, Recreation, Friendship & Fun— is a support program run by The Salvation Army’s SalvoConnect Western, providing young people who experience social isolation with a chance to develop skills that enable them to survive and thrive. Having started in 2002, LARF has been a big Ballarat success story for 15 years.
LARF has two groups, one for seven to 16-year-olds, and the other for those aged 13 to 15. Trained volunteer mentors aged between 15 and 25 work with the younger group, while the teen group is matched with mentors aged between 16 and 30.
Recreation, Activities, Mentoring and Parenting program (RAMP) coordinator Amber Byvoet is responsible for Ballarat’s LARF program, which allows disadvantaged young people to enjoy similar opportunities to their peers. An important aspect of LARF is that the participants (buddies) can develop relationships with older mentors who can share wisdom and positive role modelling.
“Opportunities and experiences outside the participants’ usual sphere of experience are offered and encouraged, and the mentors and buddies develop meaningful relationships within the group, based on trust, respect, commitment, non-judgmental support and understanding, as well as compassion and fun,” Amber explains to Warcry.
LARF groups meet fortnightly on Friday nights to enjoy fun activities which always include having a meal together, giving the buddies experience in simple food preparation and healthy food choices, as well as serving and sharing food and using good manners.
Activities include experiences such as bowling, arts and music or drama nights, sports, games, picnics, rock climbing and nights that encourage the buddies to enjoy exploring different cultures.
While many of these activities might be on offer at any good youth group, LARF has the added advantage of being able to look at serious issues—such as the development of Child Safe standards. Recently, LARF buddies were asked to contribute their ideas, and they came up with a Code of Conduct in buddy-speak, meaning all young people could understand how Child Safe standards could relate to them. So successful was their work that their ideas have now been circulated as a professional poster to the wider world of The Salvation Army.
Amber is a passionate believer in the effectiveness of the LARF program.
“Youth mentoring has been shown to help young people learn more, earn more, have healthier and longer lives, and be more likely to avoid negative influences, which affects whole communities. Ninety per cent of young people who are mentored want to mentor others, and LARF offers this opportunity in a very supportive environment,” Amber explains.
While the buddies derive an enormous amount of fun and self-esteem building from LARF, like most good volunteer programs the volunteers get great satisfaction from being involved.
“The young adult volunteers receive formal training and supervision and de-briefing is provided. Our LARF volunteers often speak about how much they enjoy building a relationship and spending time with their buddy,” Amber says.
“Volunteers also benefit from being involved in the community and providing support and friendship to young people they may not usually engage with in their everyday life. And the lack of emphasis on money sends a strong message to young people that they are valued for the person they are.”
In 2017, the LARF program began activities to build the buddies’ self-esteem through sessions involving teamwork, connecting with their mentors and group challenges.
In term two, the emphasis was on building social confidence, and included an outing to the theatre to see the musical Wicked, where mentors and staff modelled appropriate behaviour at the theatre. Involvement in Parkour (a training discipline using movement based on military obstacle course training) followed, giving the buddies a chance to become confident in engaging with their community, rather than feeling isolated from it.
LARF has proved itself a major success, with continued referrals from local welfare agencies and schools, and winning the City of Ballarat Youth Group Work awards many times.
Amber is passionate about the difference that LARF makes to everyone involved.
“I believe that purposeful mentoring programs with informed, educated and compassionate volunteers provide relationship support and healing for young people. This is so important through big life transitions which can often leave young people feeling vulnerable.”
If you know of a potential mentor for the LARF program, email SCWesternReception@aus.salvationarmy.org