On ya bike!
Meekatharra is a small town in Western Australia, nestled into the landscape some 771 kilometres north-east of Perth. Once centred in a gold mining region, the town today is better known as a transit hub for livestock. While the Royal Flying Doctor Service and School of the Air have a home in the town, so too does Frontier Services Patrol Minister Rev Mitch Fialkowski in the Murchison Patrol.
Rev Mitch likes to get involved in community projects, and being located across the road from the town's Youth Centre, he is always lending a hand in one way or another.
"Like a lot of remote areas, there are not that many extracurricular activities for the kids, so the kids can get up to mischief," says Mitch. That makes the Youth Centre all the more important. Programs vary from arts and crafts, to sporting events, dancing, cooking and bike riding. Mitch helps out where possible, including putting on some pizzas and fixing up some old push bikes.
Belinda Hicks is the Youth Officer for the Meekatharra Shire, and runs a program for youth to learn all about bike safety and leadership. "The program initially began by commandeering second hand bikes, and repairing them with the assistance of youth who were working off community hours through the Department of Corrections," Belinda says. Frontier Services donated some funds to purchase helmets, torches and a leader's bike.
The bike rides are run in the evenings every Tuesday night for about three to four hours. Summer temperatures in Meekatharra can reach 45 degrees, so riding in the afternoon is not an option. "But by evening, the nights are beautiful and perfect for a ride," adds Belinda.
Belinda is quick to credit other people involved in the program, including a casual Youth Officer, volunteer, and even her husband, although the idea to start the rides came from her own bike riding passion in Melbourne. "Both Bruce Gibson (also involved in the program) and I belonged to a bike riding group in Melbourne and we would ride around for three to four hours at night on a weekly basis."
Mitch is always optimistic about working with youth and says with pride: "Besides keeping them occupied, the bike rides teach young people to live in harmony and look out for each other and respect for their mind, body and soul."
The youth who get involved in the program vary in ages from 10 to older youth. They are open to anyone who is interested. Mitch says this type of work can take its toll on the youth workers, who put their heart and souls into their jobs.
But Belinda says that it is worth it, and the bike riding program does have a positive impact on the youth of the area. A couple of attendees have a history of truancy and substance abuse and have been involved in anti-social behaviour in the past. "The bike rides really seem to be a drawcard to these boys. It's exciting, exhilarating and great fun when they are with their mates. It also has an element of risk taking and experimentation, all in a healthy, controlled and safe environment. By these boys coming back again and again over time, the social workers have been able to forge stronger relationships with them, and support (and also challenge them at times) to a degree that they may not have been able to otherwise."
Belinda is proud of the attitude that all participants have during the rides. "Really, they feel a sense of acceptance and belonging when they attend the rides."
In the meantime, Mitch is looking forward to the next school holidays where he plans on working with the youth to teach them how to cook. "They'll write up menus, choose the ingredients and cook them up." It's another way of building confidence, teaching new skills and also helping them to forge positive relationships with their peers and adults they can trust.