There’s been a turnaround in the Kimberley. An industry which grew rich exploiting Indigenous people as free labour is paying back its debt.
By
Craig Quartermaine

10 Aug 2016 - 5:48 PM  UPDATED 10 Aug 2016 - 5:48 PM

How? Well, wealth in the East Kimberley was built off the back of a cattle industry which depended on Aboriginal stockmen but paid them nothing.

But now the Indigenous Rangers Cadetship program is having major success helping disengaged and troubled youngsters find a sense of purpose.

The program was set up by former teacher Kris Thomas in 2012 in a small property just outside Kununurra as a way of getting students who were dodging school back on track.

“A lot of these kids have been disengaged for a long time so it’s given them somewhere to go where they feel safe and happy,” he said.

“Slowly that can bring them back into listening to instructions and being proud of what they are doing, get a full day’s work in, and not being able to walk away."

Jason Reid is such a youngster. He was a deeply unhappy boy from a troubled home.

“When I first met him I was scared of him,” laughs Kris. “If we go back about five years I was doing relief teaching in the school and this young man walked in and he scared me - and he would have only been about year 8 then. “


But Kris persevered and it’s paid off because Jason now supervises and mentors other students.

“Jason Reid is like blood to me,” he says. “I’d give my left leg for Jason, he does so much not only for me and my business and what we’ve got going here but for all the kids as well.

“He gives so much of himself ... he’s a role model. They all want to be Jason Reid.”

Jason doesn’t see himself that way.

“Well I wasn’t really a happy kid. I didn’t really like going to school … I had a lot of problems with teachers and stuff and it just wasn’t a good place or nice environment for me to be in.“

After a few years of attempted schooling in Perth, his best option was the Ranger program.

“I just get really excited when I think about the program because I just see the difference that it’s making in these young boys and girls lives and it’s something so precious and exciting and every day is different.”

“I sort of got edged into it and I slowly got into the program and I didn’t like it at first it was a bit of a challenge getting into it.”

But it didn’t take long. Kris takes up the story. “From the first day he came here, we’ve had one upset since then where we had an argument. He came back the next day and he gave me a hug and he said Kris I’m sorry.”

Considering his home life growing up, Jason could have strayed down the same path as so many Indigenous youth in the East Kimberley

“Home was pretty hard because Mum and stuff were always drinking and Dad was always drunk, hardly home and stuff. Getting into the teenage years I started going out a lot wasn’t really at home wouldn’t come back until late.”

But in the Ranger cadetship classroom under the watchful eyes of Kris Thomas and his partner Sherie Lethridge, he applied himself. And he sees it happening now in kids like him.

RELATED ARTICLE:
From Dubbo to Documentary: Wiradjuri ballet dancer Ella Havelka's groundbreaking story
Ella Havelka is Australia's first Indigenous dancer in the Australian ballet. A landmark achievement which caught the interest of a documentary filmmaker and the Melbourne International Film Festival.

“I just get really excited when I think about the program because I just see the difference that it’s making in these young boys and girls lives and it’s something so precious and exciting and every day is different.”

Sherie is an expert horsewoman whose family have worked the land along the Ord River since the 60s. She taught Kris how to ride and now they both teach the students the skills to be stockmen and women.

That means they are in prime position to work as stockmen or rangers in the Kimberley.

Jason is now not just a mentor but, with his partner, a proud father of two boys.

“The boys, they’re great. They just bring out so much love inside of you. It's really taught me how to take on people and look after them and myself really. It’s just a whole different look at life now.”

An honest day’s work is its own reward they say. But coming home to a life you’ve created for yourself from nothing is just that little bit more special, he says.