It unfortunately isn’t news that many young people have it awfully rough, some not knowing their parents, some beaten by them, many falling into the trap of drinking and/or using harder drugs. It is disturbing to hear from such young kids describing the first time they used, often before their teenage years, long before their brains have fully developed.
These people are seen by many as lost causes, people who will re-offend. When found in a situation like this, they don’t have any roads that can lead them to a satisfying life, in Australia at least.
Enter the Backtrack Boys, a program designed to help young people in tough situations to focus on a positive future. The main element of the group is creator Bernie Shafeshaft’s dogs, each one free to choose the young person they want, his idea being that allowing this leads to the temperament of each dog matching the person they choose.
His other idea: a dog will not judge. If a kid can’t read or write, a dog won’t care. This clearly affects the young people in a positive way.
The focus of the film is on three young males who, without intervention, have a high chance of living a life in and out of juvenile detention and jail. Many see it as bad judgement to allow these people into the program. but this is precisely the sort of negative judgement that will create more young offenders.
Watching these street-hardened young men interact with their dogs is a wonderful thing to witness. They are shown how to train their dog and this activity grabs their attention almost without fail. This helps in keeping their minds away from what originally got them in trouble at home, as many are living on the streets or couch surfing. They all readily acknowledge that the program has changed their lives.
They also train the dogs to jump over walls, which they then turn into a show for the public as the wall is gradually made higher for the dogs, creating a friendly competition.
Hearing from these three kids, they feel pride for the first time in their life as they see their dog perform and become trained thanks to their work. They are experiencing emotions that they didn’t know were possible, as all of them had no sense of self-worth whatsoever.
The inclusion of these three into the program isn’t popular with everyone in the area, but those who support it do their damned best, donating or discounting food and anything else that could help. The volunteers who have joined are invaluable and obviously find the work they are doing incredibly rewarding.
However, the program of course isn’t perfect, and when leaving the program, some go home and get themselves into trouble, and are thrown back into the system because of one silly mistake, often due to the use of drugs. This is heartbreaking for Bernie, but he knows it is a reality of dealing with troubled youths like these three.
Given that the dour situation surrounding youth welfare is growing in Australia, this program is incredibly moving and similar ideas need to be spread across the country, and the world, to help those who end up heading towards juvenile detention for one stupid act committed while they are still growing as a person, still learning about themselves and life in general.
If it was to receive more funding, the potential is vast. However, funding is the hardest aspect to deal with, as the Australian government has never funded youth work in any meaningful way. Because of this, the Backtrack Boys is an incredible program that could help hundreds of people if the money was available.
It will bring smiles, tears, and ultimately will win your heart as the film does an excellent job of introducing us to the three young people who have been welcomed into the group. While it doesn’t bring anything new to the table regarding how documentaries are made, the story hits your heart hard and it is near impossible not to be moved by the efforts of Bernie and his team to help these young people move forward positively.
As he says early into the film, he has three simple goals: To keep them alive, to keep them out of jail, and then to focus on their future and dreams.
A noble goal, but the first two aims point to just how bad this situation is down under. Five out of a sixer
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