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4 min read

Keeping a 100-year dream alive with the BackTrack Future Fund

Profile of Shiralee Dennis
Written by Shiralee DennisPosted on 4/3/2024

After 25+ years of experience in youth work, Bernie Shakeshaft founded BackTrack, a social enterprise that supports vulnerable youth in their journey to independence.

In 2022, the BackTrack crew began thinking bigger, wanting to expand their impact by helping as many kids as possible. To help secure their dreams of long-term sustainability, they connected with Australian Communities Foundation and opened the BackTrack Foundation Fund.

BackTrack provides the holistic and flexible support young people need to get their lives back on track, combining educational, training, and diversionary activities, transitional employment, residential accommodation, and youth work.

We work where there are no other options, and we do whatever it takes for as long as it takes.

In this interview, Bernie recounts his journey with BackTrack, sharing his thoughts on the rewarding work being done, his hopes for the BackTrack Future Fund and its impact in the coming years.

What motivated you to start BackTrack?

I was working with some really difficult kids at TAFE in Armidale and I saw so many dropping out of school, getting into all kinds of trouble, sleeping rough, dealing with problem after problem and I could just see that the mainstream education system was never going to work for these kids.

So really it was frustration – from being in the youthwork game for a long time and seeing that so many programs don’t deliver. 

I’d worked as a stockman in the NT and in remote Indigenous communities in the Territory where I learnt the power of some really simple human and First Nations values: forgiveness, empathy, sharing, connection, and most of all – belonging.

The Circle of Courage principles of Belonging, Mastery, Independence, and Generosity became the cornerstone of what we set up in those early days and still live by. My frustration was that all the other programs were missing these integral pieces. The BackTrack approach is all about relationships and a very long-term approach that looks at the whole person. 

And I knew I was onto something when I started putting these kids together with dogs. Because you can see the power of connection right there in front of your eyes.

How does BackTrack’s unique approach to youth support differ from that of other organisations?

We work where there are no other options, and we do whatever it takes for as long as it takes.

We do have structure and very targeted program, like our education program which is aligned to the NSW curriculum so our teacher can work one-on-one with kids in all kinds of BackTrack settings and support them through to attaining their RoSA (Record of School Achievement) and loads of other accredited training that’s going to set them up for a different life.

But it’s not a prescribed 6-month or 12-month program. It’s holistic and flexible. And it’s a family – for as long as a young person needs it. Some of our original young people are still connected 10 or more years later – as mentors or working in our social enterprise or just visiting when they’re in town.

What’s the most rewarding aspect of your work at BackTrack?

It would have to be all the calls and texts I get from ex participants. They come out of the blue, letting me know what people are up to now, how they’re going: ‘I’ve got a family of my own now and am a qualified plumber’; ‘I’ve now got a property in such and such if BackTrack ever needs a camp’. Even if we change the life of one kid who would have spent their life in and out of jail, never getting through their trauma, it would all be worthwhile. So, every one of those texts is my payday. 

Lots of rewards though – knowing that we now have a 100-year dream to keep this ship on course for the long haul; getting national interest from so many other regional towns keen to get our support to start up similar things in their own communities. And just seeing that there are alternatives to incarceration that work. Part of what makes BackTrack work is we have the support of a whole community; the magistrates, the police, the education department (they don’t fund us, but they work with us!) because everyone can see it actually works.

I want to know that BackTrack will be here, supporting as many kids as possible, and helping them get their lives back on track, long after I’m gone. That’s really the purpose of this Fund.

What led you to opening a Future Fund with Australian Communities Foundation?

When we received the incredible donation of a farm in late 2022, we started to think bigger and longer term. We started pulling together a dream to make sure BackTrack would be here to support kids having a hard time long past my expiry date. Our young people now have that long-term connection to a piece of country that they can belong to for generations to come and we wanted to establish a Foundation to help make that long-term thinking a reality.

What do you like most about being part of Australian Communities Foundation?

Well, I like that it’s a community. Again, it ties into the Circle of Courage and the Generosity and Belonging pieces that are at the heart of BackTrack. This seems like a community of givers and of dreamers. We thought we’d fit right in!

What are your hopes for the BackTrack Future Fund?

That down the track this Fund will offer a solution for the long-term sustainability and security of our work – to keep our 100-year dream alive. We’d eventually like to see it funding some of those key operational activities that just need to happen year in, year out, and hope that it will allow us to expand our impact into more and more communities that need help.

What do you see as BackTrack’s ultimate goal or vision for the future?

I want to know that BackTrack will be here, supporting as many kids having a hard time as possible, helping them get their lives back on track, long after I’m gone.

And I’d love to see our impact and reach grow over time – that’s really the purpose of this Fund.

Support BackTrack

If you would like to help BackTrack support vulnerable youth, you can donate to the BackTrack Foundation Fund here.

To watch the award-winning documentary, BackTrack Boys, head to their website.