Strive2Drive for an independent future

11 Sep 2013   |   Blog   |   Australia   |   Long-term Development

Driving a gopher under the influence of beer goggles

Getting from A to B on four wheels is something many of us take for granted. Driving brings independence and freedom. But, for some Australians, this freedom can prove elusive. One program that Caritas Australia supports is helping First Australians of all ages be more independent and ‘drive’ their own future.

Christopher Madden, Website Editor, reports on a program supported by Caritas Australia in country New South Wales.

It’s a crisp, sunny morning in Narromine, New South Wales. The coffee, teas and Milos have been made, and the heating has been switched on. We’re sitting in a cosy room in an old convent waiting for the morning’s workshop to begin.

We’re taking part in Strive2Drive, a course that helps First Australians as they strive toward getting a driver’s license. Run by CentaCare Wilcannia-Forbes, the course is part of the Manage Your Income Manage Your Life program supported by Caritas Australia.

Seven students on the course will be sitting their Driver Knowledge Test at the end of the week to get their ‘L plates’ and begin the long road to becoming a fully qualified driver.

Roadblocks to independence

Each student has their own reason to strive for a license.

For Gabi, Catrina, and self-confessed ‘bingo queen’ Karleen, a license will mean more independence and freedom. “It’ll mean I won’t have to rely on my dad when I want to go into town,” says Gabi, in her late teens.

For grandmother Catrina, a license will let her drive to visit her family in a nearby town. “I’ll be able to just get in the car and say ‘Right. I’m off. See youse kids later’”.

For others, a license is essential for work. Trent works in warehouses driving forklifts. If he could drive to work, he’d cut his commuting time in half. We laugh at the irony that he’s allowed to drive a forklift but not a car.

Strive2Drive was established when it became clear to financial counsellors that a lack of driver’s license was blocking employment for many Indigenous people in the region. The program works to remove this roadblock to employment and independence.

Hurdles and … more hurdles

Acquiring a driving license is not simple. There are three stages to complete – L plates, and two stages of P plates – each with its own rules and restrictions and cost.

I’m learning that life is expensive out here in the country. A litre of milk can cost more than twice as much as I pay in the city. To those with an already stretched budget, a license can simply be too expensive.

The team show off their MAD certificates

To sit the L test, you need to provide your Birth Certificate: an extra hurdle and $50 that students can struggle to find. On top of this, you're not allowed to sit the test if you have any outstanding fines. A couple of the students have minor fines, but not enough money to pay them off.

Fortunately, participation in Strive2Drive can be counted as payment for fines through the “Work Development Order” Activity under NSW State Debt Recovery Office. Catrina will pay hers off after two days on the course. Trent will pay half of his off by the end of the week. It’s great that fines can be paid through meaningful activities, such as studying for a license, rather than community duties that wouldn’t lead to any personal growth or benefit for participants.

Course teacher, Lynda Edwards, helps navigate the students through all the rules and paperwork. Lynda has been with CentaCare Wilcannia Forbes for eight years and seems to have boundless energy. A Wangkumara woman, she tells me she used to play a lot of active sports, but now confines herself to lawn bowls. When I suggest that bowls is a civilised pastime, she replies “Not really: I’m a sledger”. 

Lynda is a straight talker and a gifted teacher. Her calmness and ‘no-nonsense’ approach puts the students at ease as they navigate the nerve-wracking process of taking the test.

The jaws of life

A student using the jaws of life

By Wednesday evening, with the test just two days away, nerves are starting to build. We attend a road safety workshop called “Making a Difference” (MAD), run by Dubbo SES in partnership with New England Credit Union, the NSW Highway Patrol Police Service and NSW Ambulance Service.

It’s a night of great contrasts. We have fun breaking up a car using the ‘jaws of life’, the powerful pincers used to free passengers trapped in crashed cars. We also get to drive a ‘gopher’ pedestrian scooter while wearing goggles that imitate what it’s like to drive under the influence of drugs and alcohol.

It's a lot of fun, but a seriousness underpins our laughter. We hear from Andrew, who is lucky to be alive after a terrible car crash twenty years ago. He shows us photos of his frightening head injuries and his long road to recovery. The permanent effects of the crash are clearly visible, a painful reminder of the gravity of getting behind the wheel.

This is the last time we’ll see the students before they take the test, so we wish them luck. Not that they’ll need it – all but one in Lynda’s last group passed the test.

A valuable lesson

Trent with his license

I feel very privileged to have spent a week with these amazing people. Lynda’s knowledge and skills, and the students’ determination have been inspirational.

At the time of writing, only Trent had managed to sit the test. The good news is he passed: congratulations Trent!

One of those hurdles – the need to provide a Birth Certificate – has so far prevented the others from sitting the test. CentaCare is working with local employment organisations to help secure Birth Certificates, so I'm sure the others will soon be able to join Trent as an L-plater.

I have learnt that some hurdles are just that bit harder to leap for some of us in the ‘Lucky Country’.

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