Veteran Mentor program helping get kids' lives back on track

Very proud: Kylie, Doug and Kristen.

Very proud: Kylie, Doug and Kristen.

We've all been there as parents.

The child standing in front of you bears no resemblance to the cute kid they once where.

They are annoying to the point of being disruptive to everyone in the household. It can be as simple as not making the bed or having their room tidy right through to dabbling in drugs or just running with the wrong group.

So, where do you turn?

For one Lake Cathie family, they decided to send their son to the Veteran Mentor program.

The program is designed and run by former armed service personnel on the Gold Coast.

It's first program two years ago helped 20 children. Now, 86 children - or participants as they are called in the program - attend a program each school holidays. Two programs are held during Christmas break.

One of the mentors is Matthew French, who served in the thick of the action in Afghanistan.

"Everything that was taught to us to serve overseas has been implemented in the program and we pass onto the participants," he said.

"This includes toughness, visualisation, mental strength and learning how to take the tough right (decision) over the easy wrong (decision).

"These are the same techniques I used when I was overseas and in the thick of it.

"And the participants can utilise these skills at home, at school and the wider world."

Matthew says another advantage of using former armed services personnel is that they are used to leading.

The program includes physical and arduous PT sessions, making your bed, having breakfast and being physically active.

Getting the participants to open up is also part of the journey.

"We tell stories about what happened to us overseas and when we were growing up," he said.

"Those conversations help the participants to see mentors opening up and hopefully they start to express their feelings too.

"They tend to want to share (their own experiences). It is quite an emotional experience but you can tell there is a weight lifted off their shoulders."

Mentors: Kristan with his mentors David and Sarah.

Mentors: Kristan with his mentors David and Sarah.

Lake Cathie's Kylie and Doug Koppel heard about the program on a radio interview. They felt son Kristan could benefit from attending the program.

The problem, in Kristan's own words, "I had attitude."

The year 7 Camden Haven High School student's behaviour was changing and his school work was sliding away to the point where he was getting almost daily detentions.

"I was being pretty bad to my teachers and just giving attitude to my parents, and Doug in particular," Kristan said.

"I just didn't realise I was a problem but decided to go to the camp because mum said it was going to be 'fun'.

"But that's not what it was like.

"When we got to the camp I realised that I should not give any back chat to the mentors and I actually got off on the right foot with them," he said.

"What I learned most from the camp was respect, integrity and persistence."

Program participants also have to make their own bed each morning, something Kristan still describes as 'one of the hardest things to do'.

Since returning from the program, Kristan's school reports have become more positive, he is getting on with his parents better and his attitude has changed.

"When I'm asked to do something, I try to do it straight away," he said.

"My school friends have been really supportive of me attending the program, which has helped too."

Kristan says he wants to be a mentor in the future and has started taking an interest in speaking at school and telling his story.

Good friends: Kristan met a number of people on the program including Tom.

Good friends: Kristan met a number of people on the program including Tom.

Kylie and Doug attended the parents day program and agreed they needed to change the environment when Kristan returned home.

"It was about setting boundaries, talking and really communicating around the dinner table and being more patient," Doug said.

"It takes all of us to do this. We have to work together.

"But you have to act early," he said.

Kylie said the biggest change came when they implemented tighter IT and computer game time.

"We found a massive change in Kristan when we agreed on set times for him to use IT," she said.

"He uses IT for one hour a day during the week and two hours each day on weekends."

The couple says the program has given Kristan the tools to make the right choices, to learn from his mistakes and to know that he can take the good parts of all the people involved in his life.

Matthew says respect from the participants plays a vital role in the program's success.

"At the start of the course, the participants look at us like we are the enemy. But that changes.

"We encourage everyone to have a focus again, to have a vision for their future and to break through that barrier.

"Many of these participants come to us with false bravado.

"We want them to realise what they are capable of and not let life's distractions get in their road."

Strong bonds: Kristan and Kyra.

Strong bonds: Kristan and Kyra.

He says that many of those at the program have been hanging around the wrong people, participating in drug and alcohol use, stealing or simply getting distracted by exterior forces.

"There is anxiety and a lack of self-discipline, but these kids ultimately stand up and really express themselves."

And it's a two-way street, Matthew says.

While the program certainly works for the participants, for some of the armed services personnel, having the chance to tell their stories and work with children for successful outcomes is rewarding all-round.

As the program has unfolded, the mentors have also now included parent workshops.

This is mainly to ensure that the environment the participants returns to is changed.

"We help give parents the skills and techniques to handle the changed home environment," he said.

"It is really good to teach the parents how to discipline and how to maintain a positive change.

"Part of what we do too is hold one on one mentoring when the program is finished.

"That is only starting to get up and running now.

"But it is proving to be something to reinforce the message," he said.