Room at the Top - Transcript
PROGRAM TRANSCRIPT: Monday, 15 May , 2006
JOHN HOWARD, PRIME MINISTER: Hello. Tonight's Australian Story is about a young man I first met a few years ago as part of a youth delegation that turned up in my office. Heath Ducker has overcome enormous obstacles and challenges to become a leader and a role model for young people who've had a troubled past. The obstacle of youth poverty has steeled his determination to do something to help the underprivileged in our community. He succeeded and he's even knocking on my door, after my job and this is his story.
HEATH DUCKER: I was very young when I realised that we were looked upon as a needy family. You knew that you were from a disadvantaged background and you knew that you're poor. And it made you feel like an outsider, like you didn't fit in, like I didn't fit in. Probably it was unsaid, but there wasn't much of a future for us because everyone knew our background and the struggles that we had at home. I think there was something inside of me that said, "I don't want to accept this situation. I don't want to settle for what people think of me." I knew that I wanted to get out and above that. It really annoyed me that people would judge me - even as a young person I remember thinking this - that people would judge me because of the background I came from, and limit my ability or potential, based on that. And whenever somebody tells me I can't do something it puts me on more of a mission to want to achieve it. If you really want something out of this life, you want to make a change in yourself, there's absolutely nothing - nothing - that can stop you from doing that. Admittedly, if I hadn't had the help of Youth Insearch or other people in my life that have kick-started me to get out of it a bit, I probably would have ended up in a much worse place.
RON BARR, YOUTH INSEARCH: Youth Insearch is a program that was first founded to empower young people to take responsibility of their lives. It allows people to look at the issues that are affecting their lives, affecting their behaviour and so on. And it relies a great deal on other young people at the camps to provide support, to provide advice, to say, "Well, I've been there, I've done that. This is what I did. This is what you could do." There's been a lot of sadness in Heath's life. He doesn't show it, outwardly, to anybody. He didn't want you to see inside him, but you knew that there was sadness there. He would try any method possible not to show it. To him, being deprived of a father in his life was a major thing - major.
HEATH DUCKER: Growing up I was the second-eldest of 10 children. I share a father with my younger brother but all my other brothers and sisters have a different father. There was one father who stuck around for a while. He never lived with us. There was no father that ever lived in the house. He was just around sometimes on the weekends. Grew up in an old Housing Commission home, really run-down. I remember the windows being broken and not being fixed for years, especially the one in my room. I remember going to sleep at night without a blanket, not being able to find a towel. I remember going home after school many times and not finding anything in the fridge to eat or in the cupboard. I used to eat cereal a lot, you know, cereal for breakfast, cereal for dinner.
JUDITH BARR, YOUTH INSEARCH: He lived at Oaklands in Sydney, which is not a suburb where you’d expect to see young children with social depravation and Heath's house wouldn't have met the social standards of that street. They were discriminated against because of their clothes, because their clothes weren't always clean and ironed and they were second-hand and sometimes the children would go to school and they hadn't been bathed, they'd be a bit smelly. I don't think we could even start to imagine the difficulties for Jenny, for Heath's mother. And there's no question of the love that she has for her children. Despite the fact that Jenny didn't have the physical skills or abilities to care for her children's physical needs, she was able to use the resources within the community to achieve the best that she believed she could for her children.
HEATH DUCKER: I was very fortunate when I was about nine years of age to have been assigned an aunty and uncle through the Aunty and Uncles' program, couples who give you sort of respite care on the weekends and other times, if it's required. I spent a lot of weekends with Alan and Cathy, and it was good because I saw the normal workings of a household. Alan and Cathy would wash their clothes on the weekend and iron them, and I was provided with meals. So it just gave me a bit of an insight to what a sort of normal household is like.
ALAN RABY, ‘UNCLE’: We didn't have children, we couldn't have children, and for us that was a way of having a family. So he was the son we never had. We used to race up and down the pool, loved the pool. He was very good in the swimming at school and he got me timing him up and down the pool at one stage in his school career. And we still enjoy that and we, later on we played squash, and I'd like to beat him and he'd like to beat me. I mean, we were a bit competitive.
CATHY RABY, ‘AUNTY’: The day that we met Heath he was nine and we met him with his mother in a local park. I felt very nervous. Neither of us had children so we were fairly, you know, "Well, is this child going to take to us or not?" And then I heard Heath say to his friend, "That's my aunty and uncle, there." And it was a great moment and it was a great beginning for us. At nine years old he's pretty inquiring, wants to learn, and I suppose that's the approach we took, encourage him to do things, especially around the home. I've got great memories of Alan getting him to help, and slowly he joined in the activity with Alan, I suppose just like a father and son would.
ALAN RABY, ‘UNCLE’: He'd join in and meet our friends and their kids, and I think he enjoyed that. He really enjoyed being part of just a family network around the pool, barbecue, and that was a normal family life and he'd probably never had that before.
HEATH DUCKER: I guess I was probably angry with my circumstances, angry with the situation that I was living in. I used to fight with my little sisters, I used to fight with my mum a lot. And so most of my happiness was placed outside of the home and that's where I tried to spend most of my time.
CATHY RABY, ‘AUNTY’: It started with a younger version of Youth Insearch, Young Insearch. There was a very charismatic social worker who encouraged him to go there. And I think initially it was just a way of meeting other young people, doing various activities, but very soon he wasn't just a participant, he wanted to be a leader.
HEATH DUCKER: I found a bit of belonging there, other young people who I related to, and then I went to Youth Insearch. I saw other young people who had been through what I'd been through and had got on with their lives and were doing things with their lives. So it was the first time, really, that made me believe that I could do anything I wanted with my life if I just chose to do it.
I formed really close friendships and bonds with other young people, and, of course, also met Ron Barr, and as the years went by he became, really, the father figure in my life.
I formed really close friendships and bonds with other young people, and, of course, also met Ron Barr, and as the years went by he became, really, the father figure in my life.
RON BARR, YOUTH INSEARCH: He came on the Friday night and on the Sunday afternoon you could almost feel the rocks had fallen off this kid's shoulders. And it was at that camp that Heath first realised that he was being sexually abused. That had a tremendous impact on him.
HEATH DUCKER: Because I'd been sexually abused when I was 12, I had never spoken about it and I'd kept it to myself, kept it inside. And I went to Youth Insearch and it was the first time that I realised really what was going on and what had actually happened to me. I remember the first time that it happened, and I was walking home from school that day, and I used to walk home by myself, and I remember walking along the park, walked up and over this hill and under this bridge. And this car was waiting and I looked and I thought, "Oh, yeah, I recognise that car." And I walked up and, you know, it was my friend's father, and he sort of leaned his head out the window and said, "Oh, hi, Heath. How you going? I notice you're having a bit of troubles in your friendship with my son." Because at the time, it wasn't anything major but I was having sort of little arguments with my mate who was his son. And so I got into the car and he sort of drove me around the neighbourhood and down this street which isn't too far from my home, and er, and, and he did it there. That was the first time it happened. I didn't know what I should do about it. Like, I really just didn't understand it. I knew something was wrong but I just didn't understand it. And when I went to Youth Insearch it just made it clear. I started to understand, and it was the beginning of the healing process for me.
JUDITH BARR, YOUTH INSEARCH: For Heath to have disclosed another trauma in his life was devastating. And it was devastating also to know that very few young people achieve a conviction if they decide to take the offender to court. It was the outcome on the day of court that makes Heath an outstandingly different young person.
HEATH DUCKER: I didn't feel a great need for him to be punished, but I did feel the need that society should be protected. And I remember him sitting in there like this - he was afraid, he was scared, he was, like, shaking like that. I remember seeing him like that, then looking into his eyes, which is a good thing to do first because it, you know, took the power back, and I saw a human being. I saw somebody who was afraid of what might happen to him. It was that moment I just forgave him. I forgave him for what he did to me. And anything that I'd ever, ever felt about the experience - the pain, the guilt, the shame, the sadness - it just left me at that moment, and it was gone, I didn't have to deal with it anymore. He only got weekend detention, but it was a couple of years. I'd made up my mind probably my first or second camp that I wanted to do something with my life, I wanted to be something and I wasn't going to let anything stop me from doing that. I realised that one of the only ways I was going to get there was to study and get a university education. I couldn't study in the house, so what I decided to do was to actually climb up onto the roof and I used to do my study there. Home was such a difficult environment. There was chaos with all the kids running around, babies crying, arguing and carrying on, no room. My mum used to always be going through difficulty and my older brother ran away for four years and we didn't know where he was, we couldn't find him. And there was all this trauma going on in her life, and it was depressing and I wanted to get out of it.
RON BARR, YOUTH INSEARCH: I, personally, felt really, really sad for him - probably some of the saddest moments of my life, to actually witness not only the environment but the effects that the environment had on him.
CATHY RABY, ‘AUNTY’: When Heath became a little older in his teenage years and when he was trying to get homework done, he probably spent more time with us. I wondered whether we should have made the offer to have him stay more permanently, but at the end of the day I know that his mother really loved that family and she worked very hard to keep that family together.
HEATH DUCKER: I guess the first really good experience in my life was getting my Youth Insearch leadership. Youth Insearch leadership isn't easy to get, actually. You spend a year training and then you're assessed twice to see whether you make it and then if you make it through you're awarded a badge from the governor of New South Wales. It was an excellent feeling to stand there and be, you know, awarded my leadership badge, and I was proud of it.
ALAN RABY, ‘UNCLE’: We decided we'd do everything we could to help him get his HSC. I'd been to high school presentation days with Jenny and she wanted her son to achieve. And it was actually a conversation with the high school principal, who said, "Look, in my experience kids from this kind of background do not get HSC." So that was the motivation, the spur for me and Cathy to say, "OK, we'll help Heath.". So he came to us one weekend a month and then in the HSC year he came on the weekdays, so Monday through to Friday.
HEATH DUCKER: The most time I ever spent at Alan and Cathy's home was during my HSC year. I mean, that was really vital. I wouldn't have been able to get into uni if it wasn't for them.
RON BARR, YOUTH INSEARCH: Socialising had to be put aside. You ring Heath when he was studying and the study came first, it came before Youth Insearch, it came before everything. His study was his first priority.
HEATH DUCKER: I was invited to speak at conferences, and one of them being the state's magistrates, I spoke at a conference there, about youth and crimes and alternatives to the justice system. And I was, on the basis of this, invited to meet with the Prime Minister. Ron and I went up there and spoke to the Prime Minister about, you know, youth affairs. And I remember sitting in the office and thinking, "Well, what a contrast, you know. I grew up in this poverty and I've been sexually abused and here I am a few years later, sitting in the office of the prime minister of the country, discussing youth affairs and youth issues."
RON BARR, YOUTH INSEARCH: In our program there've probably been about a dozen outstanding people. And he would be one of those most outstanding young people that I've ever had anything to do with. He's persevered and persevered where other people probably would have given up. He walked the Kokoda Trail. The first time he went up there he didn't succeed.
HEATH DUCKER: I’d jog a lot around my local neighbourhood in preparation for Kokoda. The first time I went to Kokoda was when I was in high school. Charlie Lynn, who's a member of parliament, New South Wales, got a group of young people from Youth Insearch and decided to take them over for a leadership experience. What Kokoda's really about is the ability for the human spirit to overcome adversity. I think of the experiences that I've had, the abuse or whatever, and I think, "If I can do that, if I can overcome those experiences, there's nothing that I can't overcome. There's no reason why I can't get up this mountain." Unfortunately, midway I tore a chest muscle, so I was actually evacuated midway. But that wasn't to worry because, you know, I never like to leave anything unfinished. I always knew that I'd go back and do it again, and I've more than proven that by going back as a trek leader.
RON BARR, YOUTH INSEARCH: When other people were out socialising, he'd be in there pursuing his goal, and that's the way it was. He's never really gone off the track once he, once he decided he was going to get on to it. However, on many occasions he's needed a bit of an uplift.
HEATH DUCKER: He's always there to give me advice and guidance when I need it, you know, fatherly advice, and even discipline when I was a teenager - I didn't like that, but when he saw me get out of line he would bring me straight back into line.
JUDITH BARR, YOUTH INSEARCH: As a young boy he actually said to us once, "I want to change the outcome for the social depravation that people experience." And Ron said to him, "Well, there's only one way you're going to do that, Heath, and that is by being at the top."
HEATH DUCKER: I was extremely proud to graduate from university and walk along that stage and receive my certificate, because everything in my life would have provided me for an excuse not to do that.
CATHY RABY, ‘AUNTY’: I'm very proud to have watched that journey. Friends sometimes say to me, "Where do you think he'll end up?" And I say, "Well, I can see him going two ways. Number one, doing something very active in human rights or he'll end up as prime minister."
HEATH DUCKER: If I was prime minister there's a lot I would do. One of the biggest problems we've got is with the DOCS department. I mean, they've got an immense job to do, but I think there's organisations out there that do a really good job and their results are unrecognised. I think one of the biggest problems in society in terms of helping people who are in my situation is that they assist the family in its present state, rather than trying to look at solutions. If you treat someone as they are that's how they're going to stay, but if you, if you treat somebody as who you want them to become or how they should become, then often they can rise to that. If you live in poverty, the money you get from welfare isn't a lot, and also you've got to be able to manage it. So I think in some ways Mum wasn't able to apply that money properly. The more kids that come, the more brothers and sisters we had, the more difficult it got. They do experience the same struggles that I had and I feel for them. Hopefully, the fact that I've gone out and I've achieved and not let anything hold me back will show them that they can do the same.
JUDITH BARR, YOUTH INSEARCH: I see Heath's mother as a little girl lost, very vulnerable to predators, open to abuse, whose real focus on life is about being loved and accepted, and I believe that she saw the way of achieving this was by having babies, by having children.
HEATH DUCKER: Mum is the way she is today because of the experiences she had when she was young. Growing up she had some negative experiences and they've carried on through her life. From my mum I think I've inherited a sense of compassion, a sense of understanding and the importance of the value of love, I think. Mum asks me sometimes, "Was I a bad mother? Did I not do well?" I've always said, "No." I've always believed that she did the best she could and she has nothing, really, to regret in that way. It's just the way it was, you know. The greatest difficulty I continue to have is that there's still that challenge every day to rise over, overcome my background. You have to fight against a judgement your whole life. No matter what you've achieved, people still look at you and where you've come from. But, I'll tell you something, the experiences that I've had in the home that I grew up in made me who I am, and I'm happy to be who I am today. Despite everything I've been through and the barriers that I've had, I've been able to secure a job at Gadens law firm, which is a top-10 law firm in the country. And that's been my whole purpose of the things that I've done over the years, is to convince society that these things don't have to be shackles. And perhaps having this achievement among all the others that I've done is one of the final steps in shaking those shackles off my own past.
RON BARR, YOUTH INSEARCH: From my point of view I can look back at the end of the day and say, "Well, I had some small part in the success of this boy." Because I believe that in years to come - that we are going to see more of him, we're going to hear more of him, whether it's in politics, I don't know, but I know that this boy spells success to me.
JUDITH BARR, YOUTH INSEARCH: Heath is one of my heroes, one of my big heroes, yes. Yeah. Sorry. I'm very proud, yeah, very proud of Heath.
HEATH DUCKER: One of my major goals in my life is to actually get married and have a family and become a good father, and that will signal the fact that I've completely broken the cycle.