Yianni Stefanidakis works to make the world a little kinder.
The 25-year-old has been working with the Balanced Choice Programme, based in the Northern Territory for almost three years after being approached by founder Adam Drake.
Balanced Choice was born out of a school holiday program run at a youth correction facility, blending physical and mental health exercises and has since grown to involve schools, adult prisoners and other organisations.
“Our ethos at Balanced Choice is ‘helping you get fit on the inside and out’. Getting fit on the outside with the exercise…getting your body healthy but getting fit on the inside with all the connection work and the discussions,” says Yianni.
Yianni has worked closely with Indigenous communities, helping youngsters reconnect with themselves and their families, fostering healthier habits and communication methods.
“The Indigenous community is a beautiful community. We’re doing our bit to make sure Indigenous people aren’t losing their connection to country and also trying to be there and provide a support for Indigenous families who are going through a rough time with their young people.”
He has since been “adopted” into the community and given his own skin name, ‘Japangardi’ by the Warlpiri people. This strengthened his connection to the culture and heritage.
To some outsiders, programs like these are often seen as ‘quick fix’ solutions for issues that plague troubled youth, discrediting the importance of building relationships.
“The impacts that having a relationship where someone feels safe enough to be vulnerable with you, the positive impacts that can have. You can only build those kinds of relationships through consistency and effort and consistently showing them that you’re not there to judge them, but that you’re there to support them in the right way,” says Yianni.
Patience also plays a big role in achieving this he says going on to explain the “soccer analogy” and how important adequate support is, even after leaving detention or graduating from other programs.
“Imagine that a young kid’s life is a soccer match and each year of negative programming is a goal from the other team. So if this person is 13 years old and you’re expecting him to win the match, he can’t win the match until he scores 13 goals to get back to square one…you can’t expect him to make massive changes until he’s levelled out the score.”
At the end of the day the proof is in the pudding. Exposure to positive programs like these brings positive results, and Balanced Choice has a plethora to share over the years.
One of many that particularly stand out to Yianni includes a young man removing himself from a tense situation at Don Dale youth detention centre in October 2018, where a school facility was set on fire.
“He was training really hard and looking forward to getting out, working with Balanced Choice, really making a change in his life and working towards a better future. When all that stuff happened with the riot he asked the youth justice officers to lock him up in his room. He didn’t want to get involved…and they actually brought his sentence forward and he got released two months early and hasn’t re-offended since,” Yianni says with great pride.
Learning he says is a “two way street”. He has learned just as much from the people he has worked with as they have from him.
“We learn from the people we work with when we can put our ego to the side and open ourselves up to learn new things. So it’s when we remove status from the equation.”
In future, Yianni hopes to expand the program to South Australia and share his positivity and passion for helping others.
“Every storm runs out of rain…it’s more relevant now than ever, we need to band as a community and operate with kindness, not with prejudice.”