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Kaymolly Morrelle

25 May 2011

“It’s funny; I was seen as the local nut case because I wanted to work with kids that nobody else wanted to work with… to teach them trade skills and work in the environment… I didn’t have a lot of support either way for the first five years. People used to cross the street so they didn’t have to talk to me.”

That didn’t stop Russell Ardley starting up Mornington Peninsula Youth Enterprises in 1995 on the site of a former Water Authority sewage treatment plant. It didn’t stop him from finding and training the kids most teachers don’t want in their classrooms. Any lack of funding, facilities, resources or staff didn’t stop him either. Russell is a man of singular vision and down in Gippsland, where he grew up, you made do.

“We did everything. I’m just as good a carpenter as I am a welder, a plumber… No, I’m not a plumber.” He tips his head to one side and chuckles. “Not a plumber really. Well, I’m a plumber, a builder, an electrician, an engineer—I built most of the stuff we have here.”

As a young man, Ardley trained in the army and later became a chef. He worked as a chef for about 20 years around the Mornington Peninsula. Eighteen years ago, Ardley’s teenage son was “losing his way”. The local youth programs didn’t seem to work. Ardley felt the programs were just giving young people holidays and other things their parents couldn’t afford. “That just taught them to take more,” he says.

Ardley was building replica antique furniture back then, in his shed. A friend suggested Ardley could try to work at that with his own son. But how many parents can teach their own children when things are going bad? The friend was the local youth worker on council. Ardley told him “I can’t work with my son like that.” So his friend worked with Ardley’s son and found some other kids for Ardley to work with. That was the start of a project that moved out of the shed after three years to become Mornington Peninsula Youth Enterprises.

Now, 18 years on and in his fifties, Ardley is sitting on a low brick retaining wall to the left of the open gates to this homemade empire. Ardley’s mug of tea has stopped steaming in the autumn air. The mug chills on the bricks, untouched as he shares his stories of MPYE’s development. A magpie sings in the river gum overhead and workboots crunch on the gravel as staff and volunteers head for a cuppa in the small, clean staffroom. Ardley says he won’t let them turn the heat on in the training rooms today, “we can’t afford the power bills,” he says.

MPYE has never had ongoing funding from any tier of government. Mornington Peninsula Shire supports it by leasing the site that belongs to South East Water. Ardley is grateful for his wife, Debbie’s, support from the start. “Debbie works so I can still work here, because the pay isn’t fantastic and for the first 13 years, actually more than that, we funded it ourselves,” he says.

MPYE’s nursery generates operating income from sales to the public and community organisations. Horticulture is the main program and the Australian native nursery extends across half of the two hectare site. Horticulture participants grow mangrove seedlings in rows of hand-built polytunnels. The opaque tunnels are carpeted in a mosaic of seedlings growing in milk coffee cartons.

In a heavy rainstorm last year, the salt-water ponds overflowed and 15,000 seedlings “just popped out and took off down the stormwater drains,” says Ardley. This month, MPYE delivered 6500 new seedlings to a Bass coast revegetation scheme. Ardley says it’s a way for the horticulture participants to give something back. “We’ll be involved in at least one day of putting them in, but they’ve helped the community and the environment by growing them,” he says.

Jake Baglin came to learn horticulture at MPYE five weeks ago and thought Ardley was “just an old guy”. Seventeen-year-old Jake is discovering a passion for learning about native plants and permaculture. He’s built a veggie garden at home and says he loves it at MPYE.  He’s more certain now of the direction he wants to go in and he reckons he and Ardley have opened up to each other. “Russell is really good to talk to” Jake says.

Ardley makes time to get to know his participants. Some return later to volunteer, others become like extended family. “I haven’t had a daughter myself, but I’ve given three girls away over the years where they’ve wanted me to be their father for the day.” He blinks a bit and looks away, “and I get really choked up about that too.” He sees some later when they graduate from local TAFE courses.

Ardley says sometimes it’s not clear who you’ve affected or how. His brow furrows when he says that. Very occasionally, a participant will ‘muck up’ badly and Ardley says he might suspend them for a while to think it over. Often they’ll come back. One teenager behaved so badly that he had no choice but expel her from the program. “She had good reason… a lot on her plate,” Ardley says. He still let her phone to talk things over when she got into trouble and some years later she asked to come in for a meeting. She shocked Ardley when she faced him and thanked him for kicking her out. She told him she’d behaved badly everywhere, but that he was the first who’d ever told her ‘No’ and taken the time to tell her why.

MPYE helped her to get a local apprenticeship and she kept in touch for four years. “She said she’d move up north after she qualified, and I think she did. Obviously, life moves on,” he says.

Life needs a bit of a prod sometimes and Ardley chuckles telling one story about a young participant who liked stealing cars. He wasn’t progressing and Ardley brought in a car from his brother-in-law’s wrecking yard so he and the boy could rebuild it. “It was looking good and the boy thought he was getting the car. He was supposed to be coming back the next day with his father to get it. But that night I got my kids to come in and cut the locks on the gate to make it look like it was stolen. Of course, when he comes in, the car’s gone and he starts carrying on about it. We got broken into a lot, so he didn’t even twig that it was a set up. The boy started carrying on about ‘Thieving this and that’.”

“We reported it to the police, but I’d already told them and so they treated him like crap. They said ‘Well, why should we help you? You’re stealing everybody else’s cars, why do you think we should put the effort in to you? You don’t deserve it.’ And he was getting really pissed off. So, in the end we had to tell him. Afterwards, he was really good about it. And we never did give him the car; we actually sold it as a fundraiser. But the whole purpose was so he could feel what it was like for the people that he was stealing the cars off.”

The boy got an apprenticeship and used to call Ardley at the start of each of the four years and again when he qualified, to say ‘thank you’. A few more years went by and another call came: ‘Remember me?’. Ardley’s voice cracks; he apologises for getting a bit emotional: “The boy said ‘I’ve just had a little girl, and I hope that I’m half as good a father to my little girl’ …you know, as I was to him. And those sort of things make it all worthwhile. I’ve never heard from him since, but at least I know I’ve done something.”

Ardley says he’ll never afford to retire. “If I did, I’d like to go up the country and do the same thing.” He is thinking about the regions around Mildura or Swan Hill where there is a number of Somali people and also a lot of poverty. He sees lots of issues, different challenges and very few opportunities for youngsters to get training in some of the little towns. “I think that’s what I would like to call retirement or a holiday,” he says.

A holiday might seem a stretch, but Ardley has lots of ideas to improve programs at MPYE. When he finds the funds for pallet racks, the walls around the old sewage pond will contain a new forklift training site. A tissue culture lab and a tidal watering system will improve the site’s mangrove propagation project. There will be a high demand for mangrove seedlings with all the new development of the Port at Hastings, he says.

By day, Ardley will keep managing MPYE and training young people with a lot on their plate. He’ll keep downplaying the awards received, though he’s very proud of the ones nominated by his students. He’ll still do guest lectures at university horticulture and social work departments. But, at nights and on weekends he’ll be out speaking to community and philanthropic groups to raise funds and tell them about MPYE. “Ideas have never been my problem— it’s just getting the money to make them work” he chuckles.

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Kaymolly Morrelle interviewed Russell Ardley on 5 May, 2011 and Jake Baglin on 20 and 25 May, 2011 at Mornington Peninsula Youth Enterprises. Photography: 20 and 25 May, 2011. © ksmorrelle 2011

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This work by Kaymolly S. Morrelle is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.