Koori Kids Culture Club connects after-school care to culture and Country

Claire Halliday
Claire Halliday

An after-school program helping Aboriginal children create connections to their identity and heritage is changing lives.

The Koori Kids Culture Club began almost nine years ago in the Shoalhaven, about 200 kilometres south of Sydney on Wodi-Wodi, Jerrinja, and Yuin Country. Since then, the joint initiative between researchers from the University of Wollongong (UOW), Cullunghutti Aboriginal Child and Family Centre, and the National Indigenous Australians Agency (NIAA) has seen hundreds of students take part in the unique collaborative program.

Nurturing sustainable connections

Koori Kids Culture Club promotes a connection to Country and culture, as well as providing a foundation of healthy behaviours that helps underpin all aspects of the lives of the children involved.

Two afternoons each week, Koori Kids Culture Club brings students from local area schools, including Bomaderry Public, Callala Public, Nowra East Public, Shoalhaven High, and St. Michaels Catholic Primary together. The program is aimed at primary students between the ages of seven and 12, with organisers committed to welcoming any student interested in connecting with their culture, regardless of their age.

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

“Culture is at the centre of everything we do,” Mr Ashby 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.”

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Funding supports a positive future

Recent funding from the Lowitja Institute, a national body working for the health and well-being of Aboriginal people through quality research, knowledge translation, and support for Aboriginal researchers, will enable the pilot program to be expanded and enhanced.

The $220,000 is one of just 20 grants awarded nationwide and will have a positive impact on the sustainable future of the Koori Kids Culture Club.

To make best possible use of the funding, the project team is guided by the community and works in partnership to create, activate and evaluate the program, with each team member taking on specific leadership roles where appropriate.

An additional grant of $20,000 from UOW’s Advancement and Equity Grant Scheme will also help support the project.

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, with the team now focused on evaluating the impact of the program by capturing participants’ stories and cultural journeys through yarning, photography and film.

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“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.”

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.

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

The recent funding has enabled the Koori Kids Culture Club to expand to school holiday programs – an initiative that has been well received by the local community.

Putting Country at the heart of knowledge

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

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“Country is our teacher and the source of our knowledge,” Ms Leslie 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.”

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Claire Halliday has an extensive career as a full-time writer - across book publishing, copywriting, podcasting and feature journalism - for more than 25 years. She lives in Melbourne with children, two border collies and a grumpy Burmese cat. Contact: claire.halliday[at]brandx.live