A 10 acre property in Ingleside is now home to the BEN – a not-for-profit charity providing a range of services to young people that get them back on track.

Lying inconspicuously behind the gumtrees, just off Mona Vale Road at Ingleside, “Granma’s Refuge” formerly served as a shelter for youth experiencing homelessness. Nowadays the tranquil 10acre bushland property, encompassing a beautiful lily pad-filled pond, is headquarters to The Business Education Network (BEN), a not-for-profit charity providing a range of hands-on services for young people.

A sprawling rustic chalet-style building offers a homely oasis. There are expansive bush views providing a sense of calm away from the everyday world. Many of the landscaping features that dot the grounds, such as the edible garden, pond-side BBQ area and pizza oven have been accomplished by students of the highly successful Links to Learning Program offered by the BEN.

Working in partnership with public schools in the Sydney region, the BEN is the largest Links to Learning provider in New South Wales, targeting students in Years 8 to 11 who show signs of disengagement with mainstream education. By providing a positive learning experience more often a successful transition back into school can be facilitated.

Last year saw around 180 identified students referred to the program, spending 1-2 days a week at ‘Granma’s Refuge’ during school terms for a prescribed 15- or 30-week period. However, the program is yet to reach its capacity for up to 210 annual participants, and organisers are keen to spread the word to teachers, parents and caregivers who may not be aware of its existence.

During their days at Granma’s Refuge, students partake in a diverse range of life skills sessions, both on and offsite, aimed at improving self-esteem and developing interest in new passions that reinspire engagement in formal education. Weekly themes allow for a healthy mix of fun and challenge and cover everything from communication, mental health, basic carpentry skills, bush care and gardening/landscaping, fitness, first aid and learning how to make coffee and run a café whereby students take over the group’s coffee van and serve visitors.

Etienne Gilbert, Youth worker and Programme Manager of “Links” at the BEN says the key to its success is quite simply positive human connection.

“Teenagers often don’t want to expose their innermost feelings to family or people in authority, like their teachers,” he says. “Here at The Ben we provide a non-threatening space where they have the chance to gradually unpack the layers of what’s going on for them”.

Students can then be referred if needed for further support, and there’s group work alongside Mission Australia to facilitate ongoing assistance including mental health services.

Another great initiative practiced within Links to Learning is the Canine Assisted Learning (CAL) program, facilitated by volunteer dog-owners in the community. Owners and their pre-certified dogs attend an outdoor learning session. It’s aimed at resilience building and encouraging problem solving whilst creating community connection through shared experience. Etienne explains, when talking of the many benefits of the program; “The unconditional love given by these dogs is priceless in helping regain self-esteem for some of these kids”.

Further services offered at the BEN include a work placement scheme to assist in matching young people with local business in order to facilitate HSC workplace requirements. Around 2,500 successful placements happen on an annual basis.

There have been plenty of success stories owing to this invaluable organisation since its inception over 20 years ago. Currently the BEN receives a basic level of government funding however they are always looking for new sponsorship partners and interested parties are encouraged to get in contact.

Other ways to become involved include becoming a Canine Assisted Learning volunteer (along with your pre-assessed four- legged friend), joining in the Charity Golf Day or making a tax-deductable donation.

Further information can be found at www.theben.org.au

Story: Jade Fernandes

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