DRIVING 20 hours to pick strawberries in the Adelaide Hills might not be enough reward to get most kids to do well at school, but when you live in one of Australia’s most remote communities and have spent much of the year in lockdown, it was enough to see a big increase in school participation for those involved in the WillPOWER program.

Students from the community of Pipalyatjara, 550 kilometres south-west of Alice Springs, on the border of South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory, made the long bus ride to Adelaide to take part in a week-long experience put on by the Port Adelaide Football Club’s community arm Power Community Limited (PCL) last week.

They were among 120 students from schools on the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands and from Koonibba, Yalata and Oak Valley on the state’s West Coast who came to the city between Monday and Friday as reward for their attendance, leadership and behaviour in class throughout the year.

WillPOWER is delivered to students in Years 5-9 to provide guidance and positive reasons to stay engaged in schooling and complete secondary education.

The program covers a range of subjects including culture and identity, healthy living, the risks of substance misuse, leadership and respect, road safety, numeracy and literacy and cyber safety.

Lessons are delivered during face-to-face visits by past and current Port Adelaide players and staff and role models from other sports as well as with remote video conferencing and the PCL’s virtual classroom.

Port Adelaide’s Director of Aboriginal Programs, Paul Vandenbergh said the impact of COVID-19 meant his team had to be creative with how the program was delivered without the usual reward for students of a football carnival.

“It was a big challenge this year just to keep these young people engaged,” he said.

“We had to think of another way to deliver WillPOWER and there are things we did in 2020 that we think will enhance the program going forward.

“We managed to get in a short trip up to the lands in term three when the biosecurity travel restrictions were lifted and that allowed us to have the conversations with the principals about our strategy to bring the young people down to Adelaide for a week of experiences to help encourage school attendance, behaviour and student leadership.

“Wade Thompson, who runs the program, worked really hard to ensure that those children would come away from this year and this experience to ensure they had a fantastic time and would have some amazing memories.

“Then we hope they’ll go back to their school and speak with the other students and tell them it was pretty cool and they should get involved next year.”

Among the activities the students participated in were trips to the APY Art Centre Collective, the SA Museum, AFL Max, Bounce, the Beerenberg Strawberry Farm in the Adelaide Hills, Monarto Zoo, and a cinema to take in a movie.

Mr Vandenbergh said once students knew what was at the end of the program if they kept up their attendance and behaviour, average attendances went up significantly.

“The feedback from schools was incredible. The principals were telling us they were seeing their students back at school for the first time since term 2,” he explained.

“The average attendance was around 80% if not higher leading up to the trip when usually it’s around 60-70%.

“Normally we’d create a football carnival but we decided there didn’t need to be a football element this year but there needed to be some kind of experience that they would enjoy just as much and it seemed to work even better.

“AFL Max was definitely up there in terms of the favourite activities, just the footy element, plus rock climbing, inflatables and all of it, the staff at Bounce were really surprised at how athletic some of these kids were on the trampolines, but the one that surprised me in terms of its popularity was the strawberry picking.

“We were worried they might not enjoy it but the feedback was pretty high because most of the students didn’t know how strawberries were grown so to be able to see that, then pick and eat them was incredible.

“And definitely seeing the giraffes and lions at Monarto Zoo just blew their minds.”

Mr Vandenbergh said it was likely a similar camp will be conducted going forward, but there was one very minor issue.

“It’s a model we will likely adapt going forward but the challenge for us is now how to create new activities going forward in case the kids come back again next year.

“It’s a good challenge to have.”

WillPOWER is a partnership between the Port Adelaide Football Club, the National Indigenous Australians Agency and Think Road Safety.