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The school of hope

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Fifteen-year-old Joanne Blake was wagging school more than attending it, she was mixing with the wrong crowd, selling drugs and in constant fear of the police.

With her mum recently out of jail and her dad dependent on alcohol, the Year 10 student could see she was also heading for a stint behind bars.

Students working off some steam. PHOTOS: Alphonsus Fok

Her classmate Tony Grey had tried to take his young life a number of times by self-harm.

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Having suffered severe anxiety for as long as he could remember, taking a sharp object to his skin to release the pressure he faced in his challenging home environment was the only way he could cope.

The fact both students are not only surviving but thriving at school is nothing short of a miracle and testimony to the unique service offered by the Dunlea Centre.

Formerly known as Boys’ Town, the special school in Sydney’s south, which this year is  celebrating its 80th anniversary, is giving young people with serious behavioural and emotional issues a unique opportunity to get their lives back on track.

Founded by Fr Thomas Dunlea, he drew his inspiration from St John Bosco and the Salesian ethos, whose work with disadvantaged youth began in Turin, Italy and continues throughout the world today.

Memorabilia in the Boys’ Town museum featuring press clippings on founder Fr Thomas Dunlea

Both Joanne and Tony agree Dunlea has given them something nobody has ever been able to … a real future.

Tough on the outside, it doesn’t take long for the tears to roll down young Joanne’s cheeks when explaining what Dunlea has meant to her and her fellow classmates.

“Life was pretty tough for me, I was enrolled in school but I never really went,” she said.

“I was doing drugs, getting in trouble with the police and ended up in jail.

“I cried myself to sleep and knew I had to make changes. The judge said it was either Dunlea or prison.

“I didn’t even know where Engadine was but I thought anything had to be better than jail and boy was I right.

“For the first time in my life I have a plan, I want to finish Year 10 and then do years 11 and 12 at a normal high school and study to become a chef.

“Dunlea has given me so much of what I’ve never really had mostly a caring family, a place that supports me and holds me accountable.”

Dunlea Residential Manager Samantha Dennis quizzes a student.

In what is believed to be the only centre of its type in the country, the teachers are known only by first names, there are no lunch bells, uniforms, canteen or school buses at the end of each day.

While there voluntarily, most students live on the grounds and go home only on weekends. Pupils are responsible for all their own cooking and cleaning, giving them a realistic look at what life will be like once they hit the work force.

Good behaviour is expected and rewarded with time in the gym, a cool off in the pool or a night out together as a “school family”.

Although it is the staff’s ability to look behind the negative behaviours and determine what the young people are trying to tell them that sets Dunlea apart.

Living in the residential unit means students are supported both in and outside school hours. Trained youth workers, psychologists and specialist teachers are on hand around the clock.

A year 10 class taking part in the conflict resolution program.

Before a student is enrolled at the Engadine facility, significant input is sought from parents and carers to determine the issues needing attention and just as importantly the necessary course of action.

During their stay, focus is given to all basic social skills young people need to succeed at school, in the home, work, further study, family, relationships and friendships.

And with more than 70 per cent of students going on to Year 11 and 12, further training or the workforce, it’s easy to see why the program is being deemed such an enormous success.

Dunlea Executive Director Paul Mastronardi said while the work is not for everyone, those who do stick with it are richly rewarded.

He said seeing the difference in the student’s only weeks after arriving makes it all worthwhile.

“There really is no better job in the world than making a young person’s life better,” he said.

Students taking some time out on the basketball court.

“So many of them have had such a rough start in life through no fault of their own, some have never really had anybody take an interest in them or believe in them.

“We provide a stable, nurturing and supportive environment for them to achieve.

“Getting them engaged in school is the hard part, so many don’t have someone pushing them to actually go to school so they don’t.

“Here at Dunlea it is a requirement that they go to class, which allows us to deal with the other stuff going on in their lives.

“It isn’t rocket science, seeing the difference in the kids when somebody believes in them and shows an interest is incredible.

“They turn up here not that hopeful of success but very quickly realise there are people who not only believe in them but expect them to achieve.

“The big thing is enrolment here is voluntary, they need to want to do well to achieve results.”

“The big thing is enrolment here is voluntary, they need to want to do well to achieve results.”

Paul believes his passion for helping young people comes from his own tough upbringing in what he calls a “pretty dysfunctional family”.

Initially training as a primary school teacher, he quickly developed a keen interest in marginalised youth and said providing young people with better opportunities very quickly became his passion.

“These kids know how to push your buttons so it’s how you react to them that really determines if you are cut out for it,” he said.

“I guess growing up in a challenging family myself has helped me feel comfortable around young people with challenging behaviours.

Life lessons with Lee… State MP for Heathcote Lee Evans in the kitchen with students.

“A few years ago a very good teacher I knew was looking for work so I gave him a go and after just 30 minutes I heard a commotion in the playground and went out to find him in a fight with a student.

“Kids don’t muck up if there isn’t some serious stuff going on in their life.

“As educators in this space it’s up to us to find out what’s going on in their lives and help them sort through it.”

Despite being in operation at the site for eight decades, the centre has long been a target of misinformation and rumour by those in the local community.

“We have been here for a long time and even many of our neighbours don’t know what we do,” Paul said.

“I’ve heard it all, we’ve been described as an orphanage, a naughty boy’s home, a methadone clinic, despite being a big part of the community, the community just don’t know much about us.

“At the core of what we do is always what’s best for the kids.

“At the core of what we do is always what’s best for the kids.”

“Every day we know we are making these kid’s lives so much better.”

Fr Thomas Dunlea emigrated to Australia from Ireland soon after he was ordained.

Teenage boys in crisis quickly became his chief concern and after seeing the film Boys Town starring Spencer Tracy and Mickey Rooney which was based on the work of Fr Edward Flanagan in the United States, he decided to establish a similar institution in Australia.

Battling to find accommodation big enough for the large numbers of teenagers needing assistance, Fr Dunlea was moved around a number of Sutherland Shire properties before being given a 7000 pound grant in 1940 from the Australian Meat Industry enabling him to purchase the Waratah Street site still in use today.

Undergoing many changes over time and due to the emerging needs of youth and families in Sydney, it was decided the centre would open its doors to females 10 years ago and a name change deemed necessary.

So impressed with the work being done by the centre, actor Mickey Rooney visited the Engadine site back in the 1980’s.

Hollywood legends Spencer Tracy (left) and Mickey Rooney with original founder Fr Edward Flanagan.



State MP for Heathcote Lee Evans, also a champion of the centre, regularly volunteers his time to the students and teaching staff alike.

A chef by trade, the passionate politician said he thoroughly enjoys his regular visits to the centre affectionately known as “Life Lessons with Lee”.

“The Dunlea Centre is empowering young people to be the best that they can be and I am absolutely thrilled to go and visit the students and teach them a thing or two,” he said.

“As a chef I am very happy to show the kids some culinary life skills around budgeting and menu planning.

“I hope my involvement helps them be a little bit more independent as far as what they are eating goes, instead of going to Maccas or KFC I hope I have given them the confidence to prepare a meal that is nutritious and easy to cook.

Dunlea Executive Director Paul Mastronardi being interviewed about the unique program at Dunlea

“But part of the bigger picture is taking the time to show these kids they matter.

“Seeing a Member of Parliament take the time to help them really does make a difference.

“It’s just my small contribution to the hugely valuable work being done at Dunlea.”

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