A Children’s Supported Transport volunteer reflects on his experiences

Dennis also had a childhood affected by a father in prison, and shares this experience with the families he transports

I first heard of SHINE about five or six years ago. I was listening to the radio, and one of the ladies that was being interviewed had a similar experience to me.

When I was a teenager our family imploded I guess – my father was sentenced to three years’ jail for corporate fraud. He actually served six months of those three years, but that was enough to send our whole world into a spin. It all started when I was about 13, and I guess, he got out of jail, with the aftermath of all that, I was about 19. So all of my teenage years I was affected by the circumstance.

I do have empathy with the children that I transport, because I take families to see their parents in prison, and I’m able to talk about my experience instead of just being a silly old baldy white-headed man who drives the car, for a young person I guess that’s the way they could look at me. I tell them my story, I open up and I can mentor them. I can say that I’ve been through it, and look, I’m 64, I’ve got a great family, I’ve got plenty of support in life, I’ve been successful in business. Keep going, that’s my motto, just keep going.

These circumstances really can cause young people to either sink or swim. When you’re young and you go through something like a parent going to jail, you can become very aggressive and very selfish, and in fact you have to be that to survive. So it’s a sink-or-swim situation.

And it takes a long time for you to sort your life out after that, because nobody likes selfish people, and nobody likes aggressive people. And there are plenty in our society. So you really have to wean that out of your character as you go through life. However, for you to survive the circumstance that they find themselves in, and I found myself in, you must be that, because if you don’t, you could go to an extremely dark side. Of course youth suicide is predominant in the early teens, but it also is extremely predominant from 15 to 24.

I am teaching them about resilience in a simplistic way, and as I said, my mantra is just keep going. And they can see that I’ve been through it and I’ve come out the other side. I’ve had a great family life, I’ve had a really good business life, and I’ve had a life, and now I’m passing my experiences on.

I can see the penny drop because they start asking lots of questions. Sometimes over a period of six months where I transport them just once a month to see mum in prison, I think well, they haven’t taken much notice, they haven’t said anything, then five or six months down the track, they’ll come up with one of my sayings. And that’s extremely rewarding.

I do tend to take an interest in the families that I’ve been transporting, after the transport has stopped. I do follow them up, just by phone calls, and the odd visit, just to say, hey I’m thinking of you, and I’m looking at you, d’you remember what I said?

The most important thing is contact with the parents because, when your parent goes to jail, you really become an outcast in society yourself, not just the parent in jail. People feel rather uncomfortable with you, and therefore you lose a lot of support. SHINE provides, I can say, a family environment in all things they do, whether it be activity days, transport, mentoring, very very important. It’s not the be-all and end-all but it sure helps a really good outcome for the child.

I am passionate about what I do for them because as I say, there was no SHINE back in the 1960s. If there was, I might have taken a different path. What they do, not only transporting but the activity days during school holidays and the mentoring of children without a father or a mum or both, it’s just so important.

One little Aboriginal boy that I looked after for quite a long time did not have a relationship with his mum, and by the end of the visits they were cuddling and kissing and that’s a terrific thing. But the good thing about that is that he has grown as a person. His grandmother looks after him and myriads of other children and grandchildren. I have such great admiration for Aboriginal grandmothers. This particular young man has grown into a young man from when I started taking him, I guess, when he was seven, to see his mother, and it really is satisfying for me, but that’s not the point of it, it’s seeing a human being develop under very adverse circumstances.

I’ll keep doing this job until they don’t want me any more I guess, because it is making some sort of contribution to society.