FOUNDER, TOP BLOKES FOUNDATION
2016 NSW YOUNG AUSTRALIAN OF THE YEAR
Bachelor of Communication and Media Studies (Marketing and Advertising) 2010
The simple goal of getting one positive story about young men in the media has now provided Melissa with a national platform to improve and advocate for young men's health in Australia
In 2006, Melissa was in her second year of a UOW communications degree. She wanted to volunteer for a youth organisation dedicated to helping young men and improving their image. When she couldn’t find one, she gained support from the University and started her own.
“UOW gave me the space to nurture and grow my passion. Everyone has an issue that either gets them fired up and angry or passionate enough to want to make a difference. You just need to discover what that is and use the energy to make a meaningful impact.
“I’ve never been driven by money. We all have a mission and I believe we have so much power as individuals to create good in the world.”
In stark contrast to the tech start-ups you hear about coming from university dorm rooms, the Top Blokes Foundation is a not-for-profit organisation. It implements peer-led programs in high schools, other not-for-profits and tertiary education centres to address issues including peer pressure, drugs and alcohol, sexism, cyber bullying, sexting, pornography, mental health and community disengagement of young men.
“As a society, I often see people still reinforcing the stereotype that men aren’t emotional or don’t want to talk openly about what’s going on for them, but we work with thousands of young men each year and the one thing we see time and time again is that young men want to talk about the issues that are affecting them and young men want to be listened to. But often they’re not given the safe environment that they need,” said Melissa. “The number one thing that young men say to us is that the reason why they do open up is because we don’t judge them. Sometimes it’s as simple as that, to be nurturing and non-judgemental.”
But “why men?” It’s one of the most common questions Melissa gets asked, and her answer is as altruistic as her foundation.
“I went to a public school and felt that I received many opportunities because I fit in the criteria of being female, young and ethnic. I seemed to have all the marginalised cards, which ultimately helped me to reach my full potential. But young men were the ones over-represented in crime and received a bad wrap in the media: 89 per cent of what we see in the media about young men is negative. I saw that we could balance the scales with the simple idea of treating young men as assets to our community, not liabilities – as they were often painted.”
Melissa has her work cut out – but she isn’t doing it alone. Top Blokes has passionate staff and groups of volunteers that include students from UOW who are looking to help, just like Melissa was back in 2006.
“One of the biggest things I received out of University was learning how to form educated opinions about worldly issues by doing real-world projects. Hopefully these student volunteers can take that away from Top Blokes while also making a difference in the lives of young men.”
One of the most rewarding aspects of her job is when a success story filters back to the Top Blokes Foundation’s office.
“Each week we hear of the positive outcomes that boys achieve. But one in particular stood out. There was one young man who, prior to our mentoring program, was notorious for throwing chairs and tables at school when he was angry. Within a six-month period, he had been suspended nine times. Teachers came to us not knowing how to handle this situation, so he entered our six-month peer-mentoring program. It’s now been over 14 months since entering the program, and he has yet to be suspended. In fact, he decided that he will stay on to Year 12 and took himself to the careers counsellor and asked how he can become an engineer. This was him breaking the cycle”.
Far beyond the one positive story in the media Melissa set her sights on, Top Blokes has had a direct, positive impact on the lives of thousands of young men. Melissa was recognised for all this hard work by being named the 2016 NSW Young Australian of The Year.
“When my name was called and I had to make my way to the stage, it was then that I was actually quite stunned with the process and what this actually meant,” Melissa said. “Not only is it a great platform for me to talk about young men’s health and really build the awareness of the work that we’re doing, it’s also an incredible opportunity to talk about social entrepreneurialism within Australia and how other young people are creating some impactful changes within their community.”