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School to Work graduates enjoy unique NRL networking day

NRL School to Work program students have enjoyed a special networking experience, playing touch footy with potential employers and rugby league legends.

More than 30 Indigenous graduates of the School to Work and Souths Cares Nanga Mai Marri programs participated in the third annual Bennelong Cup at Randwick Barracks last Friday.

Fourteen teams took part, amounting to around 170 players including retired NRL greats Preston Campbell, Willie Mason, Greg Inglis, Cliff Lyons and Geoff Toovey.

As well as having fun tossing the Steeden around, program graduates got their foot in the door with businesses like BGIS, Hutchinson Builders, Bennelong Energy Services and Evolve FM.

Following the tournament a luncheon was held at Souths Juniors with 280 attendees. Manly coach Des Hasler was the keynote speaker and multiple new apprenticeships and traineeships were offered.

Former Indigenous stars create connections for the next generation

"A lot of young people can grow up feeling like they don't have too many options or opportunities around them," Campbell, who designed each team's playing shirt, told NRL.com.

"We have to let them know there are many options out there. There are some of us that are happy to do something because we want to live, and there are those that get into something they enjoy, they're good at, they get paid to do, and they're really, really happy. That's what we want for these kids."

Over 450 School to Work students completed the HSC last year, making for a very impressive 96 percent achievement rate.

And while that was worthy of celebration, School to Work project officer Jason Solomon said the program's job is only half done.

Former NRL great Willie Mason at the School to Work day.
Former NRL great Willie Mason at the School to Work day. ©NRL Photos

"The hard bit is transitioning them into full-time employment or further education," said Solomon, who works with the Roosters.

"The employers [at the Bennelong Cup] are telling them what they look for in employees, but our students are telling them what they're looking for in a work environment.

"I don't think a lot of our students would come to this if the ex-NRL players didn’t have their presence here as well. The players draw these kids into days like this and then the back-end of that opens up opportunities with employers."

Sharks School to Work graduate Robert Najdanovic, who hopes to land a carpentry role, said he organised a meeting with BGIS.

Meanwhile, previous School to Work students also attended the Bennelong Cup to share their success stories.

Maddi Parr finished school with the guidance of the Raiders School to Work set-up and is now thriving as a property administrator for Evolve FM.

"I started on a traineeship, got my Cert III in Business and now I'm hired full-time," Parr said.

"[School to Work] kept me in school. It gave me a mentor to calm me down and say, 'We're with you, we're pushing you through the door'. It helped me set up interviews and you have to work hard from there."

Former NRL great Greg Inglis and School to Work graduates.
Former NRL great Greg Inglis and School to Work graduates. ©NRL Photos

The event, organised by Bennelong Energy Services - co-founded by Manly great Lyons, Gaven Sheehan and Steve Freeman - raised about $25,000 for Indigenous charities Souths Cares and Cowboys House.

"It's six months in the making to get here. A lot of organising but it's really worthwhile to see everyone having fun," Sheehan said.

"I'm really proud ... [We want to help] Indigenous kids that don't always get the opportunities."

Hutchinsons Builders, sponsors of School to Work, have supported the Bennelong Cup since the start.

As part of their commitment to get 550 Indigenous jobseekers into construction careers by the end of 2020, "Hutchies" has employed around 20 graduates from the NRL program over the years.

We have to let them know there are many options out there

Preston Campbell on the School to Work program

"Some of them are third-year apprentices now. We actually had a couple who were finalists for Hutchies Apprentice of the Year," said Mark Kucks, the company's National Indigenous Manager.

"Two young Aboriginal boys out of Sydney, they came up and one of them actually picked up a major award.

"They're just so grateful for the opportunity but they also know what's in front of them now. One day they'll be site foremen and hiring their own apprentices. We love it."