Dedicated to supporting First Nations men in their local community, the Bendigo and District Aboriginal Co-operative (BDAC) provides a variety of services to men in their community, including a healing program which supports men who have used family violence.

Beginning with funding from Family Safety Victoria in 2018, the program is titled Merrijig Mooroopook, meaning ‘healthy spirits’, a name gifted by Dja Dja Wurrung Elder Uncle Rick Nelson.

With a therapeutic based approach, the 16-week program acknowledges the effect of colonisation and trauma on Aboriginal men who use family violence. It is facilitated by Yorta Yorta man and social worker Jamaal Cross, and Uruguayan man and Men’s Program Coordinator in BDAC’s Family Safety Team Camilo Demarco.

“Our programs are always out on Country, we work with Elders and culture is embedded into everything — we always do things around the fire,” Demarco told NIT.

“Jamaal and I share as well; we make sure we take away that hierarchy. We’re just another man in that space sharing our own stuff … we move as far away from that classroom setting as we can because there is trauma from spaces like that.”

Both Cross and Demarco acknowledge the 16-week program is one part of the healing process.

“It’s longer than a regular course, and we acknowledge that this can be a life-long journey. You don’t finish the behaviour change course in 16 weeks and expect a man to be totally different … so it is ongoing,” said Demarco.

“The last part of our program is for the men during ceremony with the group, and with an Elder present, to state what changes they want to make in their lives and that gives that accountability.

“It enables them the voice to be accountable in what they want to change, and it gives us the opportunity to hold them accountable.”

Alongside Merrijig Mooroopook, Cross and Demarco facilitate a yarning group and a Men’s Shed.

“The Bendigo Aboriginal Men’s Shed … is a program that both Black and white men are welcome to come to, we see that as an important part of Reconciliation,” said Demarco.

“The men decided that was how they wanted to run it, they wanted to have it open to anyone. It’s a great space for the sharing of knowledge and experiences and is a very supportive environment for the men.”

With COVID-19 lockdowns occurring sporadically, the men had to adapt to running their programs online but have found the connection between the men remains strong.

“It just wasn’t the same, it lost that nature of the group … We ended up doing a lot of one-on-one work. Some of that work was taking them out bush and lighting a fire, we had Uncle Rick involved in that too. Other times we were dropping off tools and equipment for art, didgeridoos or other cultural items so they could have their own projects at home to occupy themselves with,” Cross said.

“The Men’s Shed took it hard, for a lot of the men it was one of the things they’d really look forward to in their week. Being able to come to the shed, having a cuppa and sitting around yarning was really good, and no longer being able to do that had its impacts.”

“We organised bowling days for them, we encouraged and empowered them to meet on their own terms. They all began to meet up together, we kept an eye on it and checked in with them but they really just came together and connected on their own.”

Cross and Demarco are dedicated to supporting and empowering local men in their healing journeys.

“They now have not only one or two people in their corner with Cam and I but they now have a different community to connect to and identify with,” said Cross.

Recognising Men’s Health Week, National Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation Chair Donnella Mills has commended the work of community-controlled organisations in supporting Indigenous men.

“The commitment of our Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisations is to support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander males to live longer, healthier lives by providing a wide range of preventative and early intervention men’s programs that address critical social and emotional issues that our men face,” she said.

By Rachael Knowles