Behind Jye McDonald’s big build, long hair, beard and tattoos, is a man fully and unapologetically open to sharing vulnerability and emotion. In the fourth of our Meet the Mentor series, we chat with Jye, one of the Youth Workers and mentors at Top Blokes. Jye shares his own experience with mental health, the challenges that today’s young males face, and the importance of ‘holding space’.
Jye, when did you start working at Top Blokes?
I’ve been at Top Blokes for about a year and a half. Before that, I was a barista for nine years making coffees and working my way through the hospitality industry. But there was more to the morning pick-me-up than just good coffee. I inadvertently took on the role of counsellor, listener, and confidant for my customers. People shared their stories with me – big or small – and I found genuine fulfilment in being there for them, to hear them out and do what I could to help them out.
It was a lot of the young boys who I resonated with. I realised that helping people in particular young males, was something that I really wanted to do. When Top Blokes posted a job opening, I didn’t hesitate. I worked towards my Cert IV in Youth Work and I haven’t looked back since.
Can you share how your background and personal experiences have influenced your approach to youth work?
I come from a small town on the South Coast called Broulee, near Batemans Bay, NSW. It's a beautiful place with beautiful people, but it’s shadowed by the weight of a persistent stigma around traditional masculinity. Growing up, I always knew I was an emotional guy, but I struggled to truly express it there.
My own battles with mental health took me to some dark places. When I was just 14, I lost my pop to cancer. He was a man I looked up to as a father figure. We shared countless moments together, from camping trips to playing cricket together. He is someone who I’ll never forget. His absence left a void, a loss of those special moments that gave me connection and a sense of self.
At 15 and 16, I faced a different kind of battle, enduring an abusive relationship throughout my senior years of High School. It got to the point that the school had to implement procedures to protect me and keep me physically, mentally and emotionally safe. I almost had to take out an ADO (Apprehended Domestic Violence Order). The scars from those years took time to surface. It was when I started teaching the conflict resolution workshop at Top Blokes that I really understood the impact of the emotional, mental and psychological abuse I had been through and how much it affected me.
I apply my own battles with my mental health to who I am now. If I can make it through, there's no reason these kids can't, too. Sometimes, you need to go through the dark so you can really appreciate any light that you will experience.
What do you find most rewarding about your work with Top Blokes?
It’s the impact we have, 100 per cent. Working directly with boys and having deep and genuine discussions about the issues and topics we talk about gives me a huge sense of accomplishment. The boys are incredibly receptive to talking about the issues we uncover in our workshops. We open up the floor and hold space for the boys to ask questions and explore their emotions. And they eagerly embrace the opportunity to do so. We encourage them to unapologetically talk about the things that matter to them.
Can you tell us a bit more about some of the challenges young males face growing up today?
The presence of social media is huge. Instagram, TikTok trends and influencers create unrealistic expectations that young boys feel compelled to meet. Boys will naturally grasp onto ideas. If we like something, that is what we get drawn to and adapt to that value or opinion. And if boys don’t have strong role models in their personal lives, these influences become their only viewpoint and sometimes that can be extreme.
COVID has also had a big impact on the boys – particularly those who would have been heading into high school in those lockdown years. Our job now is to rebuild their social skills and self-esteem and give them some security.
You’ve already spoken about ‘holding space’. What does this mean to you, and why is it important?
It’s about being present. If someone is asking questions or sharing something, we hold space. It is making sure the person is heard. We’re not giving unsolicited advice; we’re allowing people to express what is going on for them.
From my experience, most boys want to talk but are naturally more reserved. They will often wear masks to hide their vulnerabilities or shut down. Creating and holding space is a skill. I share my own vulnerabilities and my emotions and model that behaviour. The boys that I work with know they can do the same. When we hold space, we are all here to support each other without any judgment.
Can you share a memorable success story or impactful moment while working with a young person at Top Blokes?
In my early days at Top Blokes, we were working in a primary school and there was this boy who initially appeared to be fine. During the session on healthy relationships, I noticed he looked withdrawn and sad, not his usual lively footy loving self.
I tapped him on the shoulder and asked him if he wanted to go outside and have a chat. From there we got talking and he shared that he was feeling sad and that things were his fault. He then broke down into tears. His eldest sister had just returned from a drug rehabilitation clinic and his other sister had severe anorexia and was bedridden. Because of the stresses on their family, his parents were fighting. He felt it was all his fault, that he was to blame, and he couldn’t do anything.
We talked it through and came up with a game plan. We talked about things that we can do if we are feeling a certain way. For example, going to play footy helps release endorphins to make us feel good.
Each week I’d check in on him and we’d create another weekly task. Over time, his perspective changed. We checked in and each week he would thank me for being there for him and give me a huge hug. We got him some help from the school as well and things started to turn in a positive way for this young man.
That’s what holding space is. He needed to vent, share, get something off his chest, and for his feelings to be heard and understood. Giving people our time and our full presence is something we can all do for each other. And it can have a huge impact, immediate or later down the line. They will remember that.
Top Blokes covers lots of topics and issues. Which one resonates with you the most?
Mental health for sure. It’s a big realisation week for the boys and it’s a bit of a wake-up call as to why men aren’t speaking up.
The turning point in the workshop is when we get to the stats. Males count for 76% of suicides aged 15-44. I explain that my main mission is to bring that number down to zero but I cannot do that alone. I challenge the boys, ‘How can we get that number down together?’.
The boys acknowledge that we all feel sad sometimes and go through tough times. We talk about holding space for one another, looking out for your mates, and being there for each other. The boys come up with lots of great ways we can support each other. And just within that session, the stigma has been broken. The more we talk about something, the less of a stigma it becomes. We encourage the boys to keep checking in when either themselves or their friends aren’t themselves.
Building a strong connection and trust with the boys is critical to the success of any Top Bloke program in a school. How do you build connection and trust?
Common interests play a significant role. In our coastal community, we share a love for surfing and sports. Being only 23 years old myself, I can relate to these boys and their experiences, which helps bridge the gap and resonate a bit better with them.
I somewhat fit the general stereotype of a man. I’m a bigger bloke. I’ve got tattoos and facial hair but as soon as I walk into a room, I tell the boys that I'll be sharing my feelings and emotions, and I’m probably one of the most emotional people that they would meet. I don't hold back. I share my vulnerabilities and they respond positively to that honesty. The boys can spot authenticity from a mile away, and they respect it. Being open, honest, and vulnerable sets the tone for our entire program.
If you could give one piece of advice to your high school self, what would it be?
I would say there is light at the end of the tunnel. Even if you believe there is no outlet or no way of getting out, there is. When I was growing up, I wasn’t in a great headspace for a lot of the time. I was engulfed by a lot of negative things. But I would convey to my high school self that if you persist and remain true to yourself, do the things that make you happy and check off day-to-day, things will work out.
We love that message Jye. It’s one we can all remember and take on board. Lastly, when you're not in the Top Blokes classroom running programs, where can we find you?
Either in the gym or in bed sleeping! I’m currently preparing for a body-building competition on 18 November on the Gold Coast – it’s the National titles for NatBod Federation, so I need to put in the work at the gym but also make sure I give my body the time to recover and rest. I build that into my routine. Having a consistent routine helps me set my day with intention. When you’re working a job, finding time for your partner, finding time for yourself, and training, prepping food etc., it can be hard. Particularly the mental aspect of it. But if I have a consistent routine, I can achieve a lot.
On Friday mornings, you’ll find me helping with Talk2mebro, another Illawarra-based organisation I became involved in during my Mental First Aid Assist Training with Top Blokes. The facilitator was the director of Talk2mebro. Since that day, it’s become part of my Friday routine, and I’ll always draw on how much that group has helped shape me much the same as Top Blokes Foundation. Breathwork, ice baths followed by coffees, how could you complain?!
Jye's journey from the coffee shop corner to the frontlines of youth work reflects the power of personal experiences and the incredible impact we as individuals can make. Jye reminds us all that, even in the darkest times, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. With Top Blokes mentors like Jye, and a willingness to be unapologetically ourselves, we can find that light and build a brighter future for us all.
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