While the COVID-19 pandemic isolated students for parts of the year, the NRL School to Work program kept its participants connected through online Yarning Circles.
Established in 2012, NRL School to Work focuses on helping Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students graduate from high school and find meaningful employment or tertiary education.
A record 500 participants finished their Year 12 studies with the assistance of the Government-funded initiative in 2020.
When the pandemic forced institutions to close and learning to go online, the NRL School to Work team decided to conduct Yarning Circles over Zoom.
An important facet of Aboriginal culture for thousands of years, Yarning Circles help form respectful relationships, preserve and pass on knowledge and provide a safe environment for discussion.
Joel Thompson – Episode 3
NRL legend Preston Campbell was the first online guest speaker, followed by the Hon Linda Burney MP, departing Sea Eagle Joel Thompson, AFL champion Eddie Betts and actor Rob Collins.
NRL and Melbourne Storm S2W project officer Lyndall Down said having Indigenous leaders recall the barriers they've overcome was "inspiring" for students watching from Victoria, NSW, Canberra and Queensland.
"It was a way to ensure the kids remained not only connected to the program but remained connected to their culture and connected to really prevalent, positive Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander role models," Down said.
"As time went on and lockdown went on, some kids were becoming disengaged with school. It was hard with online learning to keep them engaged in school and focused on what they wanted to achieve ... their goals and their career aspirations.
"[Yarning Circles] were a really great way that we could actually keep them connected and then have something to look forward to.
"We'll continue these next year because they've been so popular. Furthermore, we've been able to connect schools to culture in a really easy way. With teachers and staff being able to access culture, it's been a really positive thing in terms of that as well."
Down, who was initially planning to bring Yarning Circles to schools with Storm and Melbourne AFL players before lockdown, said that students outside of the School to Work program were also engaged.
Once some schools were able to operate as usual, many students watched the Yarning Circles in groups.
"Even some of the other [younger] Aboriginal students jumped in … For Linda Burney, we extended it out to non-Indigenous students," she said. "We're educating the non-Indigenous kids in the school about culture. That was encouraged as well."
All of the speakers "had their own story to tell and it would resonate with different kids and what they're experiencing," Down said when asked for a highlight of the series so far.
She praised Dean Widders, the ex-NRL star who now works as the NRL's Indigenous Pathways Manager, for his help in hosting a few episodes and interviewing the guests.
"He is someone who is such a positive role model in the community, so to have Dean as part of these Yarning Circles and his energy, his knowledge and insight has been such a godsend, really," Down said.