A group of students with mentors from the Koori Kids Culture Club are seen walking into the bush. Photo: Supplied

Koori Kids Culture Club helps Shoalhaven students engage with their identity

Koori Kids Culture Club helps Shoalhaven students engage with their identity

Collaboration between UOW and Cullunghutti Aboriginal Child and Family Centre provides strong cultural foundation

An after-school program that encourages students to connect with their heritage and identity is transforming the lives of Aboriginal children in the Shoalhaven.

The Koori Kids Culture Club, which has been running for close to nine years in the South Coast region, on Wodi-Wodi, Jerrinja, and Yuin Country, has seen hundreds of students take part in its unique, collaborative, and life-changing program.

A joint initiative between researchers from the University of Wollongong (UOW),  Cullunghutti Aboriginal Child and Family Centre, and the National Indigenous Australians Agency (NIAA), Koori Kids Culture Club promotes a connection to culture and Country, and provides a foundation of healthy behaviours from which the children can draw in all aspects of their lives.

Koori Kids Culture Club recently received $220,000 in funding from the Lowitja Institute, a national body working for the health and wellbeing of Aboriginal people through quality research, knowledge translation and support for Aboriginal researchers. The funding, one of only 20 grants awarded nationwide, will enable the researchers from UOW, Cullunghutti Aboriginal Child and Family Centre, and the NIAA to build on the pilot program and evolve Koori Kids Culture Club.

The project team are guided by the community and is working in partnership to design, implement and evaluate the program, with each member of the team taking on different leadership roles where appropriate.

The project was also granted $20,000 from UOW’s Advancement and Equity Grant Scheme.

Two afternoons a week, Koori Kids Culture Club is run on Country and brings together students from schools in the local area, including Bomaderry Public, Shoalhaven High, Callala Public, St Michaels Catholic Primary, and Nowra East Public. It is aimed at primary students between seven and 12, however, the organisers would never turn away any student, irrespective of age, who was interested in connecting with their culture.

Charlie Ashby, Program Coordinator of Koori Kids Culture Club at Cullunghutti Aboriginal Child and Family Centre, said the program had an immense impact on the lives of the young participants.

“Culture is at the centre of everything we do,” Charlie said. “The program includes so many different elements; it is about culture, Country, mental, physical and spiritual health, language, food, traditional cooking, dance and song.

“We take the kids out on Country and teach them how to relate to Mother Earth, how to give back and how to take only what they need.

“We also have students who have been through the program now coming back to be mentors to the younger kids. It’s a real full circle moment that captures the power of what we are doing.”

Dr Rebecca Stanley, a Research Fellow in the School of Health and Society and Early Start at UOW, has been involved in the program since its inception in 2014. From a research point of view, Dr Stanley said the role of UOW in the collaborative project has evolved, and the team were now focused on evaluating the impact of the program by capturing participants’ stories and cultural journeys through yarning, photography and film.

“I continue to be amazed at how impactful the Koori Kids Culture Club is,” Dr Stanley said. “It is a unique and special program, that is addressing a strong need in the Shoalhaven community. It provides the children with the cultural foundation they need to truly thrive.

“As researchers, we are also learning alongside the children. The program teaches us how to be better researchers, and the power of culture in building relationships.”

With the recent funding, Koori Kids Culture Club has expanded to school holiday programs, which have been met with incredibly strong demand from the local community. All programs are held on Country and draw on the knowledge of local Elders.

Tara Leslie, Chief Executive Officer of Cullunghutti Aboriginal Child and Family Centre, said Koori Kids Culture Club places Country at the centre of every lesson.

“Country is our teacher and the source of our knowledge,” Tara said. “We take the students to places of significance on Country, and benefit from the knowledge of local Elders.

“Koori Kids Culture Club does not just benefit the students, it benefits the entire community, because when kids connect to their culture, it strengthens their identity, they learn respect, responsibility, leadership, and pride. Their attendance improves at school, and it has a huge impact on their anxiety.”

The UOW research team encompasses a multidisciplinary approach, with Dr Stanley from the School of Health and Society, Associate Professor Yasmine Probst from the School of Medical, Indigenous and Health Sciences, Dr Sarah Tillott from the School of Nursing, and Dr Anthony McKnight, and Dr Gabrielle O’Flynn from the School of Education.