Bernie Shakeshaft and James Knight's Back on Track launched in Armidale

AUTHOR: Bernie Shakeshaft holding his new book, Back on Track. Photo: Nicholas Fuller
AUTHOR: Bernie Shakeshaft holding his new book, Back on Track. Photo: Nicholas Fuller

Bernie Shakeshaft says he is not an extraordinary guy - but he and his team at BackTrack have achieved something extraordinary.

Since Mr Shakeshaft founded the organisation 13 years ago, it has given more than 1000 disadvantaged and at-risk youths a new start in life, and halved juvenile crime rates in Armidale.

And all because Mr Shakeshaft's passionate about what he does.

The public can read about his life and his charity's success in Back on Track, co-written with James Knight, launched at the Armidale Bowling Club on Thursday.

"By far the hardest work project I've ever done," Mr Knight wrote, "but I would do it again, and again, if I had to. You all inspired me, and have restored my faith in the spirit of humanity."

The book is already a top-10 non-fiction Australian bestseller, publisher Hachette said. More than 1000 copies were sold in the first partial week sales.

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Matt Lynch, BackTrack volunteer and policeman, emceed the book launch. He was working as an Armidale police inspector in 2006 when he met Mr Shakeshaft as a youth worker.

"There was a revolving door of young men and women going in and out of custody, going before court, coming out of juvie," Mr Lynch said. "Bernie was always there; Bernie was the number one support person for these kids."

Policeman and BackTrack volunteer Matt Lynch remembers how the organisation was founded. Photo - Nicholas Fuller

Policeman and BackTrack volunteer Matt Lynch remembers how the organisation was founded. Photo - Nicholas Fuller

Mr Shakeshaft took seven high-risk offenders - now known as the Magnificent Seven - camping for the weekend, to stop them from getting into trouble, committing crimes, or harming themselves.

His next step was to start welding classes twice a week from a small shed - giving youngsters skills and an occupation.

"The revolving door of high-risk and repeat offenders started to slow," Mr Lynch said. "The cops could now see that these kids weren't coming under notice anymore, and the community benefited, because they were not victims of crime."

Nathan Bliss was one of the first seven. He was failing Year 9, hanging out on streets, drinking, when Mr Shakeshaft invited him to join the program. Today, he is a full-time youth worker with BackTrack.

"If it wasn't for BackTrack," Mr Bliss said, "I could have been locked up, I could have been dead. It's lucky that I got on the right track when I did, because of Bernie."

ON THE RIGHT TRACK: Nathan Bliss. Photo - Dave Robinson.

ON THE RIGHT TRACK: Nathan Bliss. Photo - Dave Robinson.

BackTrack's programs help the students to develop a sense of responsibility, and self-esteem.

Students might train cattle dogs (Paws Up), winning competitions and championships. They might work in the agricultural sector (AgLads); or make metal dog boxes, farm gates, cattle grids, stock holders, and statues (IronMan Welders).

BackTrack also runs a girls' program (Running Strong); a school outreach program for disengaged young primary and secondary students across the district; and provides accommodation for kids in need.

"You won't find anywhere in the country where you'll get a program like this that has an 87 per cent success rate for training, schools, education, and employment," Mr Lynch said.

"You won't find a program like this in the country that is bucking the system of juvenile crime against the state average. It's incredible what's happened."

Other regional towns - Lake Cargelligo, Broken Hill, Dubbo, Condobolin, Bourke, and Grafton - have adopted the BackTrack model.

To get where they are took a lot of pain and hard work, Mr Shakeshaft said.

Inviting a large crowd to join him onstage, he said BackTrack's success was not down to one person.

"Yeah, I started it ... but we're in this together, and making a difference in this community."

Back on Track: How one man and his dogs are changing the lives of rural kids, by Bernie Shakeshaft & James Knight, Hachette Australia, RRP $34.99.

This story "Back on Track" book launched in Armidale first appeared on The Armidale Express.