Meet Colin: Leading social education in Toowoomba

Step into the world of Colin, Program Coordinator at Top Blokes and based in Toowoomba, QLD. With a rich background in community services, Colin’s journey weaves through years of hands-on experience in addiction rehabilitation and community development. In the fifth of our Meet the Mentor series, Colin shares his motivations, experience working with young people and his ‘old bloke’ mullet.

How long have you worked at Top Blokes, and what brought you here?

I joined Top Blokes in January 2022, but my journey leading up to that point spans over 20 years in the community services sector. My background revolves around working in drug and alcohol rehabilitation. In the last five years, my focus shifted towards community development, where I built partnerships with organisations, community groups and local leaders to tackle drug and alcohol issues and break the cycle.

When you work in the sector, we talk about building a fence at the top of the cliff. I decided I wanted to work with boys and young men in the early prevention stage to stop them from going down that cliff and help them build their fence at an early age. When we do that, we can make a significant and lasting difference in their lives.

Why the focus on young male mental health?

Young male mental health is a focal point for me because I’ve seen firsthand how big the need is. Boys and young men are impacted by the world around them – societal and school pressures. They struggle to find their own identity and battle with self-respect, respect for others and respect for their environment. But respect always starts with you first and foremost.

One challenge I’ve observed over the years is the lack of strong, positive role models for young men to look up to. We have a local team of youth workers based in Toowoomba and, in the schools we work with, I hope we can be good role models for some of those boys.

I sometimes think that the boys here in this region feel a bit isolated, and this isolation can lead to the adoption of ideas that may not serve them well. Sadly, we also see communities – even in schools sometimes – where young men feel marginalised, which further disempowers them. It’s our responsibility to bring young men back into the fold and empower them.

Another significant issue in our area is youth crime, especially stealing cars, which is prevalent in Toowoomba. While there’s considerable effort and investment in intervention, Top Blokes stands out for focusing on prevention. If we can shift attitudes and mindsets, we can bring about change. Our program statistics demonstrate this change. Boys and young men who engage with the Top Blokes program are more likely to engage positively in school. And if they engage in school then we can reduce the likelihood of them engaging in negative activities.

What do you find most rewarding about your work with Top Blokes?

It would be easy to say the Top Blokes graduations [when boys have come to the end of the program] are the most rewarding moments. But for me, it’s during the program.

It’s those ‘light bulb’ moments when you see the change or perspective for a young man shift. It’s those ‘aha’ moments that are really rewarding.

You’ve had significant experience working in the social education and community space. What do you believe makes the Top Blokes program so unique?

The strength of Top Blokes lies in its unique combination of being a national charity with a strong local presence. I grew up in Toowoomba, and I have deep roots in this community. My family resides here, and my kids attend school here. I know this community. I know and understand its highs and lows.

Just the other day, the local school had a community dinner and they asked me to come and speak about what we do. Last week I was invited to speak to over 1500 students from another school. These local partnerships are key to achieving better outcomes for boys and young men. When I tell people what we do, people say, ‘Wow we need more of that’ or ‘ I wish my son had that, how can I get him on the program?’.

How do you build strong connections and trust with the young men you work with?

Building connections and trust with these young men is a process that requires time and authenticity. We can’t just head into a classroom and provide them with information. We need to listen to them and understand what’s happening in their lives.

But it’s not about delving too deeply; it’s about showing them that we care. There’s an old saying ‘people don’t care how much you know unless they know how much you care’. You have to build that trust and that doesn’t come in a day – it’s over a longer period.

You also have to be authentic. I didn’t grow up in 2023; I grew up in the ’70s and ’80s. I don’t try to be cool. I’m not that person. You won’t see me wearing TN’s or going in for a dap up. But I do have to find something that they can relate to. A lot of these boys love mullets, so I tell them that my beard is actually an old bloke’s mullet. They find humour in that.

Building connections also involves ‘holding space’ for these boys and young men. It’s being able to decipher who is talking truth, who is not, who is contributing. It’s such a fine line. Holding space is a learned thing. It takes focus – it’s about truly listening and actually validating someone else’s emotions; the person needs to feel understood. Holding space is a skill – it takes time to really master.

Can you share a memorable success story or impactful moment you’ve had while working with at Top Blokes?

There are so many stories about the boys and young men we work with. But one of the most rewarding moments is when we receive feedback from school staff about the positive changes they’ve observed in the way the boys carry themselves post-program.

A school librarian recently told me about a particular boy who was unsure about his future and that anxiousness was making him increasingly angry. Since completing the program, she’s noticed how he seems a lot surer about where he is going, surer of his future. That weight off his shoulders has lifted his anger and fears. Another principal mentioned to me, “The boys walk taller once they’ve been at Top Blokes.” How good is that?

We also had a student at one school who was disengaged and phased out. He transitioned to an alternative school, where we were running our program and the transformation was remarkable. He went from being completely disengaged to being 100% involved and engaged in the program. It was great to see.

We help boys on their journey – help them navigate the world and life. The beacons and guideposts for them can be vague. We make those beacons and guideposts really clear for them.

Which workshops on the program are your favourite?

The Risk and Reward workshop is one I particularly enjoy as there’s lots of activities and action in the workshop.

I also like the Porn workshops. It always brings the boys out of their shell a bit more. The majority of them have never talked about porn with an adult so it’s great to be able to give them that opportunity to discuss and share. Drawing on my background in addiction, these discussions are vital. Many young men lack an understanding of the addictive nature of porn and how it can impact them mentally and physically.

I also really like our Conflict Resolution workshop as we talk through the eight different types of abuse in a relationship. Domestic violence is an issue very close to my heart. I’ve done a lot of work with domestic violence groups, but the average guy has no idea. It’s good to be able to share this information with boys. It can come down to generational change. We were at a country school the other week and we spoke to every boy in that school. That is a game changer – we could potentially play a part in creating a generational change directly in that community.

What is one piece of advice would you give your high school self?

I’d tell myself, “This won’t last – it’s going to get better. Don’t sweat the small stuff.”

When you’re not working, where can we find you?

You’ll often find me at home with my family, contemplating a fishing trip or catching an AFL game. I love fishing; it’s relaxing and provides an opportunity for quality time with my son.

Colin is a real champion for boys and young men across the Toowoomba region and beyond. His commitment to helping boys create a fence at the top of the cliff marks the very essence of Top Blokes’ mission to help young men live healthy and safe lives.

If you’d like to chat with one of our regional coordinators to discover how Top Blokes can help your school or community organisation please reach out.