The Outdoor Education Group’s Executive Director of Research and Innovation, Dr. Clare Dallat recently spoke about the far-reaching impact of an incredibly special and personal program that The Outdoor Education Group is privileged to partner. The Alice Sloan Expedition and Leadership Program or ‘Alice’s’ program, as it is affectionately known, is a year-long leadership development program for young women from rural Victoria which commences with a ten-day outdoor expedition.

The Alice Sloan Trust was established in honour of Alice who tragically lost her life at the age of 16 when a tree fell on to her tent on an Outdoor Education Group program. Alice’s family, inspired by the way Alice lived her life with love, passion and enthusiasm, established the Trust in December 2005. The Trust aims to provide young people from all walks of life with opportunities to participate in varied pursuits that foster fun, friendship and personal growth. Incorporating the positive qualities that characterised the way Alice lived her life, her journey has continued through the contribution to the lives of many in her name.

Recently, the Trust along with partners The Outdoor Education Group and Alexandra Secondary College supported the 13th program where a group of young women, a representative from their school, and outdoor educators from OEG, ventured off to bushwalk, paddle, climb and cycle in and around their local mountains, tracks and rivers. The Alice girls, as they have now affectionally become, kept a journal, took on daily leadership roles, and contributed to the overall success of the ’Our Mountains, Our Journey’ expedition. Clare recently spoke at a major fundraising event for the Trust held at Toorak College, Mt Eliza. She talked to the significant personal and community impact of this program over the past thirteen years, as reported directly by the young women, their families and members of their community. We have shared some of Clare’s speech below.

The fact that Alice’s journey is a multi-day outdoor expedition is no mistake. We know that active participation in outdoor experiences has direct links with social, physical and mental wellbeing (Williams et al., 2018). However, we also know that young women in rural/regional communities face a number of significant challenges and difficulties that can adversely impact their health, wellbeing and development. With limited public services, regional and rural young women are at risk of poorer physical and mental health and have greater vulnerability to family violence (The Dream Gap Report, 2017). Ex-Murrindindi Shire Council Mayor Charlie Bisset spoke directly to the importance of the Alice Sloan Expedition and Leadership Program regarding mental health, saying that:

“With the rise and awareness of mental health in young people and the distressing increase of self-harming by young women currently in our community, I believe that if this program hadn’t existed over the past twelve years, then the consequences of these actions becoming common and accepted by peers could have occurred. The Alice Sloan program has been the catalyst for enabling this opportunity and possibility of change for these young women to open their eyes, minds and hearts to gain the strength through the support of the program to dream big, believe in themselves and go for it!”

Research confirms that low wellbeing is concentrated in groups of young people who are recognised as marginalised, and this includes young people in rural and regional Australia. However, the significant involvement of the community in this program has also confirmed the evidence that rural and regional communities can become more socially connected (Hoolahan, 2002). There is no doubt that this community is invested in the health and wellbeing of their youth. I experienced this support of Alice’s program first-hand at a recent Rotary dinner in a town close to Alexandra. Someone at the table asked me what I did, and after mentioning Alice’s program, another man entered the conversation. He told us that he had driven the school bus for years and that he can easily tell an Alice girl by the way they step onto his bus:

“Those that have participated in the program are different – they hold their heads up, they have their shoulders back and they, no word of a lie, look me in the eyes. They are totally different than the girls they were before. I don’t care what numbers and research you collect, I know the difference from before they go and from when they come back. That’s how I know, and I just drive the school bus. That program changes them.”

The female-only design of the program is also intentional. It provides an outlet for young women to explore themselves, solely for themselves. In Alice’s expedition, there are no mirrors, no profile pictures or social media updates required, and no pressure to be or do anything other than to contribute to the goals and tasks of the group. The program aims to directly address the concerning evidence that as young women get older, their confidence decreases – a recent study indicating that from a total of 1800 girls, only 44% of them view themselves as confident. Our own research of the program’s impact over the past twelve years informs us that both the all-female design and the program’s ability to assist in building confidence are extremely important. One student from 2012 wrote:

“The program was really mentally challenging for me, but I learned that I could count on myself and the other girls. I’ve never felt prouder of myself and I feel ready to take on the world!”

The lived experience of one of the young women’s parents also speaks so powerfully about the impact on her and her daughter’s relationship as a result of participating in this wonderful program. In her own words:

“When my daughter set out on the expedition, she was 16 years old and totally lacking in confidence and self-worth. She had been severely bullied at school and had contemplated suicide quite a few times. She had an unhappy home life with an alcoholic stepfather, a mother who yelled far too much at her step-father and worked multiple jobs so wasn’t really home a lot to give my daughter the secure home life that she craved. My daughter left for the program as a young girl with no self-confidence and in a world of doubt as to whether she was up to the challenge. I remember the day of the girls return so vividly. I remember seeing the girls walking up the road, their arms linked together, and so triumphant. I have always been proud of her but the pride I felt that day was so overwhelming. My little girl who had departed as a meek and mild teenager, who was so easily pushed around by others had returned as a fierce and determined young woman ready to take on the world and win.”

There’s an old saying that it takes a village. This program epitomises and truly brings to life that saying. And at the centre of the village, or in this case, community, is Alice. Her spirit and her legacy gently and calmly guide the path every year, and she does this through her family. And everyone knows it. Out of immense tragedy, the Sloan family have, and continue, to give so many other young women the gift of real and genuine opportunity.

Auri, a participant from the 2009 program, speaks from her perspective to the incredible importance of this personal connection with everyone from the Alice Sloan Trust:

“The program would not be the same without the support of the Sloan family – and all those who hold Alice close to their heart. Meeting John and Jennie is a turning point for many participants, as the expedition name suddenly has meaning and emotion – it is an undeniably memorable moment for all”.

The program does much more than fill a gap in a community that otherwise would not be available. This program truly fills. Almost 130 young women over the past 13 years have been enabled, and encouraged, to be themselves, in an environment where their thoughts or actions are not influenced by how many likes they may receive on a glass screen. Nor is there micromanagement of their every move. Instead, they are given a backpack and some reasonable boundaries and empowered to make actual decisions and choices. This means they will fail sometimes, but more often, they’ll succeed. And they’ll grow from both. They won’t get any Instagram ‘likes’, but they will get genuine encouragement, from a human being that they can see. They will experience consistent practice making real-life decisions and facing the consequences of these decisions. Leave their clothes and gear around the campsite and risk having it not be there in the morning. On the other hand, speak up and have others listen. Take the lead and see what can be achieved. These are experiences that won’t just stay on the bike, on the trail or in the canoe. They’ll accompany them after the expedition, and on through the years following. Whether it’s on the bus, into the exam room, or to the house party, all places where decisions with real consequences will need to be made – decisions whether to join others in trying that drug or to get in the car with that driver. Or whether to turn inward and spiral or to reach out and seek support from others.

In a time when the need for genuine leadership and followership has never been greater, we should rightly aspire to higher standards than many of the leaders of this land hold themselves to. In a world where 1.8 billion out of the total 7 billion people on the planet are youth, this program truly matters. It matters greatly to all of those people who have been touched by the Alice Sloan Trust, and crucially, it matters to the people they will influence and connect with throughout their whole lives. If you would like to support the Alice Sloan Trust in its mission to provide young people from all walks of life with opportunities to participate in varied pursuits that foster fun, friendship and personal growth click here.

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