Reconnecting with culture

AN innovative Gippsland-based community corrections program has celebrated 10 years of changing the lives of Aboriginal men.

Wulgunggo Ngalu Learning Place — a residential facility located on a 65 hectare property near Yarram — provides participants serving community correction orders with an important opportunity to connect with their culture while engaging in programs and activities to address offending.

Officially opened in late-2008, the learning place is a key initiative of the Victorian Aboriginal Justice Agreement, a partnership between the state government and the Aboriginal community aimed at reducing the over-representation of indigenous people in the prison system.

While living at Wulgunggo Ngalu for periods of three to six months, participants connect with their Aboriginal culture through Welcome to Country and smoking ceremonies, cooking, dancing, storytelling and visits from elders.

The men are also engaged in employment, vocational education, life skills programs and community work, including maintaining the property and providing assistance in the local area.

A total 519 men have participated in the award-winning diversion program in the past decade, and general manager Shaun Braybrook said he had seen countless lives transformed.

“While we are a correctional facility that helps men to complete their orders, we also stand for growing men strong in their culture and strong in their identity,” he said.

“The men who come through here are so proud of this place, and once they’ve reclaimed their culture and identity it stems into the rest of their lives and empowers them to move on.

“The real growth you see is when fellas go home and become better fathers, impart what they’ve learned on those around them and continue to address issues around things like substance abuse and family violence.

“People often come back to visit, and you see the changes in a lot of different ways.

“It’s in their appearance and the way they walk tall and proud; it’s in their language and how they communicate with people, and it’s in their ability to share their story with others.”

Wulgunggo Ngalu’s 10-year anniversary was last month marked with a special event for participants, staff, service providers and supporters.

It featured a smoking ceremony, dance circle and performances, moving talks from former participants and a lunch of ground-cooked crocodile, emu and kangaroo sausages.

“Just as it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a tribe to support a man through a cultural journey of change, and this was our tribe,” Mr Braybrook said.

Staff and participants also hosted a community open day to thank Gippslanders for their support.

Mr Braybrook said engagement with the broader community — including running dance and cultural workshops at local schools — was therapeutic and confidence-boosting for the men.

“Overwhelmingly the experience of sharing their culture and having others be interested and engaged with it is unbelievable for the fellas’ healing and their journey,” he said.

“People in the community have been so supportive of us, and its great knowing that we’re a place they feel proud of and can hang their hats on.”