A group of students knocked on my staff room door early one Monday morning, back when I was a Gold Coast high school teacher 18 years ago. They were deeply concerned for one of their peers who passed out from intoxication at a party on Saturday night. They asked for guidance on what they could do to help their friends caught up in spiralling alcohol abuse.
Those kids made it their resolve to go along to parties as what they called ‘sober buddies,’ to look out for their friends and keep them out of trouble.
They taught me that the answer to turning around Australia’s teen binge drinking problem was not about programs, punishments, laws or taxes, but about transforming culture from the inside out, peer to peer, mate to mate. Kids in the moment, leading by example, showing their buddies that there’s a better way.
I did all I could to support them from the sidelines. Their parents invited me along to their parties, so I took a teacher buddy and visited the start of their parties, before things got messy. Gravely concerned about what I was seeing, I delved deeper and researched all the dangers of under-age alcohol abuse, best practice for hosting parties and principles for modelling good behaviour. I shared my findings with the kids, their parents and the school community. I summed it all up in a little booklet and sent a copy to every family.
Soon other schools were asking for copies and I was invited to visit to share my ideas with students, teachers and parents around south-east Queensland. More schools asked, and with the financial support of 33 Australian wineries, I printed 200,000 copies of my booklet and offered them free of charge to schools around the country to share with their families (still available here). Little steps in a big problem that impacts every community around Australia and the world. But my reach could only extend so far.
Unknown to me at the time, an energetic young Andy Gourley was also discovering the alcohol-fuelled antics of schoolies weeks, O-week parties, music festivals and sporting events.
That's Andy ‘boss frog’ Gourley with me in the picture above a his annual Red Frogs Gala dinner last night. He stood up and announced:
Our mission is to provide a positive peer presence to young people in alcohol-fuelled environments. We are literally changing culture. Most of our volunteers are students themselves. And that’s the thing I’m most proud of. Seeing students changing their own culture. Cultures change from the inside out, not outside in.
In 2014 I set up Teen Rescue Foundation, and with the generous support of the Australian wine community, we have raised more than $100,000 to resource organisations including Red Frogs. They do it better and so very much bigger than I ever could.
Each year, Red Frogs speaks to 69,000 students in high schools, puts more than 3600 support volunteers into schoolies weeks in 14 locations including Bali and Fiji, 143 residential colleges across 24 universities, not to mention 42 music events and many sporting events. In all, the work of Red Frogs impacts 1.4 million young people every year.
And it’s making a very real difference. Australian teenagers are drinking less alcohol now than they have at any time since surveying began in the early 1980s. After the dust had settled at the end of his last schoolies week in 2019, Andy told me:
As far as alcohol health is concerned, this is one of the best schoolies’ weeks we’ve done. A lot of schoolies are not binge drinking as much, and a higher proportion are drinking more responsibly. It’s been five years in a row now that we’ve seen this trend. Education has been critical to changing the culture and behaviour.
The principles that Red Frogs live out today are just like those my students exemplified that Monday morning 18 years ago. Kids transforming culture from the inside out.