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Justin’s passion is preparing youth for the long drive of life


Drive for Life instructor Justin Maher at the Stafford Salvos centre in Brisbane.

The Salvation Army’s Drive for Life program aims to see all young people have the opportunity to achieve their goals and reach their full potential. A driver’s license in a young person’s life is a key milestone that helps them move towards independence and hopefully allows them to pursue education, employment and housing goals. Justin Maher, a Drive for Life program coordinator, plays a key role in the program at Stafford in Brisbane. Salvos Online recently caught up with Justin to discuss the program and its demonstration of our mission of walking alongside people in our communities.

 
BY CHLOE RICE

Prior to his role with The Salvation Army, throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Justin owned his own driving school. Near the end of the lockdowns, he was contacted by The Salvation Army in Brisbane, seeking his expertise in the Drive for Life program at Stafford.

Justin decided to take a chance on the Salvos mission, closing his driving school and fully committing to this new opportunity. In his own practice, he would spend a lot of time teaching high-functioning autistic students, a passion that he felt aligned strongly with the Salvos’ mission of working with people with disabilities and disadvantaged youth.


The Salvation Army Drive for Life program in Stafford is an ongoing initiative with approximately 70 students participating each year. Students in Queensland commit to 100 hours of driving practice to obtain their license.


Justin shared that, at first, 100 hours can seem like a lot, but once students have practised with an instructor for the first 10 hours, they are introduced to a volunteer mentor and relationships are then formed.

The volunteer mentors drawn from diverse backgrounds are “the golden stars in beginning the journey of growth and shared experiences between two generations”, according to Justin. In addition to the driving skills learnt, program mentors provide structured support amid life challenges, often equipping students with long-term life skills such as CV writing and job interview preparation.

Some mentors even go the extra mile to pick up the students from different locations or arrange meeting points in central spaces, depending on the program location. There are currently three Drive for Life locations in Queensland – Lawnton and Stafford in Brisbane’s north and one in Bundaberg.


Training for mentors

The program in Stafford is closely linked with community initiatives, particularly those concerning refugees and youth outreach services. Justin says, “Addressing the trauma present in these young lives is a priority and preparing the mentors to guide them is key.”


Training for mentors involves teaching them how to start lessons, initiate safe and meaningful conversations and meet students where they’re at – emotionally and mentally. Not to mention the workshops and special events just for the mentors. The mentorship experience is enriching for both parties, which, Justin says, “allows mentors to grow by gaining a deeper understanding of various cultures and backgrounds”.

A vital component of the program is ensuring the lessons are tailored to a learner’s lived experience. Justin shared that there have been students from Afghanistan who’ve never been in a car but only had experience riding horseback. “It’s about understanding that some individuals have not grown up with the familiarity of being in a car and require tailored support and sometimes extra time,” he says.


In this setting, mentors have the unique opportunity to be a steady presence, offering a wealth of experience, encouraging commitment and guiding students in the long drive of life. There are 20 mentors in the Stafford program, with the future hope being a one-to-one mentor-student ratio.


“A key goal is increasing the number of volunteers, even within Brisbane, particularly for individuals emerging from traumatic experiences who we’ve seen find it difficult to prioritise getting a license,” Justin says.

“Language barriers can present obstacles, and yet an opportunity for growth and learning for both the mentee and mentor ... teaching driving involves its own unique language.”

The program is experiencing a notable influx of referrals, at least five a day, resulting in a growing waiting list. “It’s a struggle to keep up with the demand, securing grants to support this movement is also crucial to effectively address the growing demand and extend the program’s reach.”

Justin explained that advancing the program is an ongoing goal, as digital transformation is essential, with access to IT playing a significant role in the program’s functionality.


Unique challenges

When asked about the main challenges the team faces in the program, Justin says, “Language barriers can present obstacles, and yet an opportunity for growth and learning for both the mentee and mentor ... teaching driving involves its own unique language.”

Additionally, these young people frequently grapple with diverse life challenges such as job security, transportation accessibility and difficulties within their household dynamics, such as family fragmentation and lack of housing, not to mention the ongoing search to find their role and purpose in the world. “Encouraging students to attend their lessons in the midst of personal difficulty can be challenging,” Justin says.


The age range of participants falls typically between 16 and 25, and some with diverse cultural backgrounds require a driver’s license to secure employment in Australia, adding another layer of difficulty to their experience.

Reflecting on the most rewarding part of his job, Justin says, “Being on the frontline, building relationships with a young person and going on the journey with them, you can see where they come from and how they grow as individuals. And if they put one step in front of another, they can build a better life for themselves.

“As a mentor, you can see the change in the student and the hope restored, not just with a license but the achievement and opening to greater opportunities – it really changes their life. Moulding the person they become, which correlates between moulding their understanding of the world and learning how to drive.”



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