Sunday, 24 November 2013

Schoolies Festival 2013: My experience at Victor Harbor, South Australia

If you read my Facebook or Twitter posts over the weekend you would have seen that I attended the Schoolies Festival 2013 at Victor Harbor, SA as a VIP Guest and had been invited by Encounter Youth, the organisation that puts on the event in that state. When they first offered me the opportunity there was a part of me that hesitated - was this really a place for a man of my age to attend (apparently we're called 'droolies' - over 25s who attend Schoolies!) and would I be intruding on what really is a young person's event? When I was told that they run a VIP Tour for sponsors and other interested parties prior to the evening starting to show how the weekend festival is organised and rolled out, I knew I had to be a part of it!

Before I go on it is important to let you know who Encounter Youth actually is ... this is how they describe themselves on their website:

"Encounter Youth is a faith based, non-profit charity, who respond to community needs because of the challenges and teachings of Jesus Christ. We serve people from all walks of life, no matter their spiritual, political or ethnic background. We want to see a positive development of social and community welfare! Encounter Youth is committed to the health and well-being of South Australian communities and it's young people."

There are a number of activities that they are involved in, including providing alcohol and other drug education sessions in SA schools, but the Schoolies Festival is by far their largest and most visible activity.
Let's make it clear - I am not a particularly religious person and usually the easiest way to put me off anything is to say that it has some connection to a religious group. That said, I have had regular contact with Encounter Youth for quite a while now and I have been nothing but impressed by their commitment to young people and their passion for making sure adolescents are supported and kept as safe as possible, without ever pushing their own beliefs on anyone. They truly are an amazing group of people who I admire greatly!
For those of you who don't live in SA, Year 12s in that state have been travelling to Victor Harbor for their 'Schoolies' celebrations for many years. Fifteen years ago Encounter Youth became involved in the event. At that time the town was experiencing great problems with visiting schoolies - antisocial behaviour and violence were commonplace and young visitors to this quiet beachside town were wandering the streets with nothing much to do. Since that time Encounter Youth have built up an event that is truly world-class, enabling those attending to have a safe and positive experience, and at the same time, protecting residents of the town from being adversely affected by the influx of young partygoers.
So what was my experience like?
When I arrived in Victor Harbor I was taken to where the VIP Tour would begin. There were a range of adults on the tour - sponsors, Victor Harbor Council members (including the Mayor), some fairly high ranking police officers and others. We were put onto a large bus and taken to a number of different sites. Our first stop was a caravan park (unlike other Schoolies destinations, Victor Harbor does not have a great deal of large hotels and most young visitors stay in camping grounds - when I tell Year 12s in other states that, they almost pass out!) where the owner/manager described his 9 years of working with schoolies and how they operate and work with Encounter Youth to keep the young people as safe as possible.
It was here that we first met Green Team members - a group of Christian volunteers from across SA that are there to help, support and just 'be there' for the thousands of Year 12s attending Schoolies. As it says on their website:
"We’re there early setting up tents and stages... We are in your caravan parks taking care of you... We ride the buses with you... We entertain you while you're waiting in line...  We roam around making sure you’re safe… We call ‘000’ when you need us to… We walk you home or to your car… We prepare all year round, and come from all over the state just so we can hang out with you, and keep you safe while you have a good time. And we do it for free."
Actually these guys pay to be a member of the Green Team! That's right they pay to volunteer to look after schoolies ... they are truly unbelievable! This team of young people is what really makes this Schoolies Festival so unique - I don't know of anywhere else (and I have worked the Gold Coast Schoolies and visited Byron during the same period) where this type of team exists. There are so many of them (all dressed in the brightest green you have ever seen) and they just set 'a tone' - I don't really know how else to say it - you just feel as though you are in a supported environment. As someone said the next morning - someone really should drug-test the Green Team - they truly are the happiest group of people I've ever seen! 
After meeting and talking to some Green Team members - teams are based at most of the caravan parks and hotels where schoolies are staying - we moved to where the Festival actually takes place. We were taken through the whole process - from being told we were on one of the many buses that ferry partygoers from their accommodation to the site from the beginning of the night to the early hours of the morning through to being shown how they monitor how many volunteers they have on site at any time. We were taken through the range of dance tents, recovery and rest areas available and informed about the 'Battle of the Bands' event that they run across the three nights of the Festival.
Over the past 25 years I have worked at a range of dance events and I have to say that I was incredibly impressed with what I saw. My specialty area is 'alcohol and other drug safety' and police liaison and what has always worried me about Schoolies' events is that because you are dealing with such young, and often na├»ve, people the risks are so much greater. Encounter Youth had done a great job!
As far as I am aware I was the only tour member who actually attended the actual Schoolies event later that evening and I am so glad I did! I was with one of the organisers when they received a text message to say that almost 5000 young people had been through the door and it certainly looked like there were that many there - the place was pumping! The kids were going off! Different areas offered different styles of music (to a point) and what made it so special for me was the number of Year 12s from different schools I visit across SA who ran up to me, called out my name and the like, just to tell me that they were being safe and looking after each other ... it was incredible!
It is a dry event and so no alcohol is available (even though the majority of SA Year 12s would actually be 18) and it would be safe to assume that many of attending would have preloaded (drank alcohol beforehand) to some extent. Did I see drunk young people? Absolutely! Was it even close to what I see when I walk down George St in the centre of Sydney on a Saturday night to see a movie? Absolutely not! Did I see young people that I thought were drug-affected? Yes, without a doubt ... but once again, nowhere near the extent to what I would see on a weekend at any nightclub or dance event anywhere across the country ...
There are only three 'formal' Schoolies Week events put on across the country - two of those are fully or partly-funded by governments due to the fact that their Year 12s are a year younger than those in other states (WA and Queensland). SA is the only state where Schoolies is run by a private organisation and Encounter Youth should be commended for their efforts. Very few SA students opt to travel overseas (a potentially dangerous trend that we see in other states, particularly in NSW and Victoria where nothing is provided), instead choosing to travel to a venue in their own state (usually for a weekend instead of a full week) which is controlled and organised by wonderful people who are committed to keep our kids as safe as possible. SA parents should thank their lucky stars that Encounter Youth and their volunteers continue to do what they do ...
When I left Victor Harbor yesterday I told the organisers that I would love to be asked back - perhaps this time as a full-on volunteer - it really was that great an experience!  

1 comment: