I would firstly like to acknowledge the Gurindji people, the Traditional Custodians of the land on which I lived and worked to deliver the Wanta program, and pay my respects to Elders past, present, and emerging.

I am so grateful that Wanta Aboriginal Corporation, Prav, and myself were welcomed onto country to play a role in the education and opportunities provided to the youth and future of Kalkaringi and Daguragu.

I have had the privilege of being the director of the Wanta program in Kalkaringi for just under 2.5 years where I strived to continue and build on the success achieved by Praveen Kalaivanan (now Northern Regional Manager) in his 2.5 years of establishing and running the program from 2017-19. Prav and I both pride ourselves on the holistic program we built in Kalkaringi, encompassing a diverse range of activities to effectively incentivise, reward, engage, educate, and support the growth, development, and future prospects of the youth of Kalkaringi and Daguragu. The program has not seen a gap in its delivery over the last five years since its establishment and has achieved, and in most cases exceeded, all contractual aims and objectives! This is even amongst the difficulties of operating throughout the covid pandemic and being an underfunded program struggling to piece together funds year on year (also thanks to covid!). As a result, the program earned itself great stead in the community with recognition, trust, and support from the local people and stakeholders in the work that we do.

From school attendance improvements, to reduced youth crime, to confidence, leadership, and skill improvement through unique trips and experiences, such as five days of canoeing 55km along the Ord River in WA, or developing alcohol education animations with Life Education in Darwin; the results of this program stretch from within the classroom to far beyond in providing real life opportunities and empowering and supporting youth and families to alter the course of their lives through improved education, opportunities and informed decision making. Here are some statistics from January 2020 to March 2022 (so not even inclusive of Prav’s amazing time prior) and the fantastic achievements made as a part of this program:

Kalkaringi Wanta Program Jan 2020-March 2022

More than 21,000 students entered the Wanta Room in over 1400 Wanta room sessions

More than 7000 participants in over 450 sports lessons delivered

More than 2200 school pick ups, of which 74% were high school kids

More than 2100 workshops delivered (including drumbeat, nutrition, social enterprise, drivers education, cybersafety, AOD, employment profiles, mindfulness, etc.)

18 activities and camps on Gurindji country

17 sports fixtures against Lajamanu Wanta Academy

15 students supported in undertaking work experience and certifications

16 reward trips to Katherine, Darwin, and even interstate to Kununurra

10 community discos and movie nights

8 Learner Drivers licenses

5 Ochre cards

4 Tax File Numbers

1 social enterprise established by the Senior students in 2021 within which every high school student was involved in the process, delivering 3 community events, making over $2000 in profits which were donated to Kalkaringi’s Aged Care and Safe House.

These results are huge and have not come without their fair share of hard work, patience, and commitment on a daily basis (including weekends and holidays!). These amazing data outcomes are reflected even further in the smiles in the photos of these kids on the walls of the Wanta Room, the “Hey Ellie, remember when we…” moments as they recall endless memories of Wanta activities, and in the random taps on shoulders from families as they thank me for my efforts in getting kids out of bed, obtaining driver licenses, or having their own kid cook and serve them a burger at their social enterprise event! Unfortunately, these results were not enough to secure enough funding to support the continuation of the program or my visa for the rest of 2022 and beyond, leaving us in a really tough spot in putting the Kalkaringi program on pause. Prav has pledged his continued commitment in his role to sourcing further funding for the continuation of the Wanta program in Kalkaringi (no easy feat unfortunately) but it meant for a very sad goodbye at the end of Term 1 for both myself and the program after what has been a hugely successful five years!

I have since spent plenty of time admiring photos and videos and reminiscing on the, albeit cut short, amazing experience. Like any job, adventure, or life chapter there are lows and difficulties that come with such a demanding, immersive experience. Being a one man band trying to deliver everything with limited support on the ground and feeling so thinly spread at times. Limited funding for the program. Cultural and lifestyle differences. Living in the middle of nowhere at least 5 hours from any supermarket, service, or stranger. Insane temperatures that this English girl had never experienced in her life. Covid. Family being on the other side of the world. And the rest…But that is truly all forgotten when I look back on my time in Kalkaringi (or I think it all just quickly became my normality to be honest) – I only have the biggest smile, fullest heart and fondest memories. Students with ear-to-ear grins achieving their drivers licenses or counting the money made at our social enterprise events; all the reward trips to Katherine, Darwin, and Kununurra – canoeing, waterfalls, sports, and camping under the stars; the discos that were filled with epic twerking that I could never replicate; out on country – hearing stories from Elders, learning about cultural traditions, language, bush medicines, fishing, dancing, and singing;  watching Aladdin on the movie truck at Possum Hill; cruising in the troopy ‘blasting beats’ that I reckon has damaged my hearing for life; the confidence oozing out of kids with freshly braided hair (although I may also regret this when I get early onset arthritis in my fingers too!).

The best and most rewarding part of living and working for Wanta was the relationships I built with the community. Kalkaringi and Daguragu have built themselves a pretty good reputation for being a warm and welcoming place to new people. Other stakeholders were quick to reiterate this point in my early days in 2020 to provide reassurance in the decision this inexperienced but hopeful English girl had made to move here on a whim. But I was quick to see this myself…in the daily interactions with families on pickups, to the kids in the classroom…oh the kids!…I know from talking to teacher friends that the first groups of kids you work with will always hold a special place in your heart but wowza! Their charisma, energy, personalities, love, and smiles had me smitten from day one, from snotty nosed preschoolers to senior boys towering above me. The experiences, in jokes, and achievements made with these kids are memories I will hold dear and tell people about for years to come (much to their dismay, I’m sure – “we get it Ellie, you worked out bush”). The same can be said for their families that shared the kindest words and hugs in my final weeks as we looked forward to reuniting later this year at Freedom Day Festival. The role as Wanta Director is all-encompassing, exhausting, and consuming but that is what enables us to make such an impact in our roles and makes the experience so unique – only this way can you know the ins and outs of every child, where they live (or the four different houses they could be staying at instead), their relations (both the way I grew up knowing family trees and their way in their extended families), how best to incentivise them (muesli bars are often a winner), get work out of them, calm them down, and laugh with them.

As an underfunded program, we were never fortunate enough to have the scope to employ local staff within our Kalkaringi Academy as is done in all the other Wanta Academies across the Northern Territory. Employment preparation and opportunities are some of the ultimate goals of our work as we help engage, educate, up-skill, and build an employment profile for our students – we strive to provide employment opportunities to bring the young people we work full circle in their journey with Wanta, increasing indigenous representation in the workforce, and providing confident, capable role models in community. To see individuals who have come through the Wanta program then get employed as a staff member was always the dream of mine and Prav’s in Kalkaringi. Two students we were both lucky to work with, Keenan and Lachlan (left and right respectively in first photo), showed great potential to gain meaningful employment. We both worked extremely hard in engaging these young men in school through the five years of the Wanta program alongside their peers, including daily pick ups, classroom support, sports activities, and reward opportunities…even post graduation they continued to come to school out of habit, begin a Cert 3 in Civil Construction and Plant Operation with our support, and engage in the Wanta space, earning spots on two big reward trips too! Prav and I were both devastated to never get the opportunity to employ and work with either of these boys as a result of our limited funding. But when, in Term 1 of 2022, the new RSAS (Remote School Attendance Strategy) program was being established by Gurindji Aboriginal Corporation in Kalkaringi, I was quick to put forward Keenan and Lachlan as individuals deserving of an employment opportunity. Thankfully Mayrav, the brilliant new Team Leader of the RSAS program, was excited and keen to engage with them. With Wanta having supported them to build comprehensive employment profiles, including drivers licenses, birth certificates, email addresses, USI numbers and tax file numbers (neither had any piece of ID to their name before!!), both were equipped to grasp this opportunity with two hands with only Working With Children cards and bank accounts left to attain! Entering the final weeks of my time in Kalkaringi, I was beaming to see these boys on my morning pick ups already up and ready for work, excited for the day ahead (and the payslips to come!!). They even supported me in the set up and delivery of a footy game against Lajamanu on my penultimate day!  It was the perfect finish to my time in Kalkaringi, and the program temporarily, and left Prav and I beaming as Keenan’s mum emotionally passed on her thanks, stating Keenan quite literally would not be doing anything with his life if it wasn’t for Wanta and our hard work and belief in him!

If someone had told 22 year old Ellie, fresh out of University and moving from England to Australia for a year to explore and delay adulting, that she would end up with a piece of her heart forever in a small remote indigenous community in the middle of the Northern Territory, I would have said you were CRAZY! And now I leave behind the most challenging, eye opening, rewarding chapter that quite literally changed who I am as a person, and the future life trajectory of myself and others.

Written by Ellie Simmons, Director.