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More Cultural Rehabs, Less Jails founder Jeffrey Amatto on culture and lived experience

Jess Whaler -

Award winning founder of Yindamara Mens Healing Group, More Cultural Rehabs, Less Jails and co-founder of Brothers 4 Recovery Drug and Alcohol Awareness, Proud Wiradjuri man Jeffery Amatto, is an example of how recognising the value of lived experience can create the change our country needs.

National Indigenous Times spoke with Mr Amatto, an advocate and presenter who has travelled more than 350,000kms delivering workshops across Australia sharing his inspiring journey of grit, strength and resilience to uplift and give hope to others who are experiencing struggles similar to what he survived.

Bringing knowledge and passion to his work, Mr Amatto has a lived experience of incarceration, addiction and growing up black in the regional town of Wellington, New South Wales which he fondly refers to as god's country.

He currently resides on Darkinjung Country, a place he feels privileged to call home, because that is where his healing happened at a cultural rehab centre - The Glen.

As a child Mr Amatto was exposed to the negative impacts of intergenerational trauma including poverty, alcoholism and gambling, yet he still reflects on his childhood with positive memories of growing up and the strong relationship he had with his mum, nan and pop, and culture.

"As a kid growing up, back home I loved it, I loved being back on country. It was a normal thing to go down to the river swimming and playing at the park or fishing," he said.

"I really enjoyed my culture. I loved rabbiting, I loved going camping. Because my Nanna and Pop they had a really big family of their own thirteen kids on the Nanima Mission.

"We didn't have the material things, but what we had was the three most important things for us as Indigenous people which was love, culture and respect."

On reflection Mr Amatto said country music and a particular song 'He Walked on Water' by Randy Travis, takes him back to his childhood, mentioning an uncle who used to often sing it flawlessly. Whilst there were good times growing up, once alcohol and gambling had started infiltrating his home life by age of five, his memories start to change.

"We were welfare dependent and relied on Centrelink to survive, and once we started relying on Centrelink, that's when alcohol started becoming the problem and a lot of gambling and our culture was going out the door and what was coming in it was alcohol," Mr Amatto said

"I started seeing a lot of things that a young child shouldn't see.

"The laughing and crying and a lot of country music, a lot of domestic violence… going on without food. That's when I believe I became traumatised as a kid."

Mr Amatto said the events experienced at home would cloud his mind and concentration at school, which inevitably impacted his ability to develop relationships with both peers and teachers who would write him off as being uncontrollable or uninterested in learning.

"I was that kid that sat up the back of the classroom and I thought about what happened last night," he said.

As a child he would often go to school without lunch because of money lost to gambling.

"My mum she did her best. You know I love my mum dearly. She moulded me into the man I am today, but she struggled herself," he said.

"When you go into school and you're seeing a lot of kids with a big tuckerbox and salad sandwiches and mud cakes and poppers and you're sitting next to them kids with no food, and very hungry, it's a horrible feeling."

This experience started impacting his self-esteem and feelings of self-worth.

He described early feelings of anxiety and isolation which led to further ostracisation at school.

"I didn't want to be around other people because I can't communicate because I've got this fear in my belly where I can't… relate to other kids that are my age," he said.

"They had mum and dad picking them up and taking them to sports training and home before the lights come on."

Mr Amatto told National Indigenous Times (NIT) during primary school he abstained from drinking alcohol or experimenting with drugs because he saw the dark side of those substances at home.

However the transition to high school was a tough one which only exacerbated the difference in home life from his peers as he continued to struggle with identifying with children his own age.

Instead he found familiarity in what the older kids were doing which was hanging out with girls and making them laugh, wagging school, smoking marijuana and chipping in for cask wine.

"My mind's at a point now where that's normal. I see it every day," he said.

After trying alcohol for the first time in Year 7 he recalls the feeling of his trauma and low self-esteem drifting away, which became a problematic escape from day one.

"It only goes away for so long, until you wake up the next day and you've got to do it again," he said.

Mr Amatto said there were one or two support teachers who engaged with the kids that were misbehaving.

"All these kids were put in the same classroom and you can just imagine it," he said.

After a short-lived experience of highschool, Mr Amatto was asked to leave due to absenteeism and behaviour that involved abruptly walking out of classrooms with the school recommending TAFE.

Mr Amatto as a child. (Image: supplied)

Regular use of alcohol and marijuana soon became an issue and at fifteen years of age he was sent to Sydney to live with his Aunty Linny, Uncle Tony Mundine and Anthony Mundine (Choc), who was playing for St George at the time.

His uncle was strictly against drugs and alcohol and despite the family's attempts to lead him in the right direction, Mr Amatto said the first thing he did when he arrived in Sydney was locate his vice of choice, which led to him returning to Wellington by seventeen.

At this point darker days arrived. Alcohol and softer drugs weren't relieving him of his trauma and the friendships he kept were older men who were using heavier drugs like heroin, cocaine and speed.

"They were also in and out of the prison system,"he said.

Inevitably he tried heroin for the first time at age sixteen and by nineteen years of age he was an addict, caught amidst a deep spiral of being in and out of courtrooms and hospitals from overdose.

He started stealing at this point to support his addiction and this would often be from the people who loved him the most, actions that affected his personal relationships.

Mr Amatto admitted he has done a lot of things he isn't proud of, but it was disappointing his mum, nan and pop that hurt the most.

After it got to a point where family couldn't help him anymore, he was either on the streets or in an out of homeless shelters and "by age 21-22, that's when I started getting locked up".

Mr Amatto said the lack of support services outside of prison sets people up to fail.

"The system didn't work for me, all that damage caused trauma to the trauma," he said.

"After spending time in jail, you still leave with mental health issues and untreated addiction and at the time, there was no transitional support for prisoners being released.

"You are released off country with $350."

He spoke on how difficult the system is to navigate with everything being digitalised adding an extra level of complexity.

"For inmates that are institutionalised, we're told what to do in the system. When to sleep and get up and feed and eat and then we're pushed out on the streets and then we go 'well, what do I do now?,'" he said.

By the time Mr Amatto was considered an adult, he had untreated mental health concerns and was completely disconnected from culture.

"I didn't know where I fit it in, in the world. It was easier to be locked away," he said.

After a tumultuous childhood and early adulthood, he has now been sober and clean for fifteen years.

When asked what the catalyst was for this final and lasting change, he said it was the allocation of an outstanding probation and parole officer.

Mr Amatto recounted the system of needing to test sober and clean, noting that if someone were to test clean for eleven months then tested positive once, they would need to start the twelve months of probation and parole again.

He said while some officers would put someone back on parole for being late to an appointment, he was lucky to have "a lady that really cared".

The probation and parole officer suggested The Glen, a culturally focussed rehabilitation centre that provides services for men and women.

At first he was reluctant because it was based away from his home on the Central Coast's Darkinjung Country, however the parole officer said at that point he had no other choice.

At his lowest point, Mr Amatto weighed a mere 59kgs. He vividly recalls the first two weeks of his time at The Glen and the pain he went through whilst detoxing from drugs and alcohol.

"The only way I can describe it was it was like a bunsen burner for like two weeks," he said. "It was most horrible feeling and I keep them feelings close to me every day. You know, I never ever want to forget that."

Mr Amatto described the regimented routine of The Glen and how this was paired with counsellors who had a lived experience of addiction and incarceration, and were connected to culture and able to inspire and build rapport.

"As drug addicts and alcoholics, we're pretty cunning, you know, we can read body language and we can read if you know, he's full of sh*t or if he's practicing what he's preaching and the ripple effect of a counsellor that lived it and they're the same as us… that's a really good vibe to have," he said.

"It's like I say, 'well if he can do it, I can do it. You know if you can see it, you can believe it.'"

Mr Amatto said hearing how to be successful in the transformation from someone who hasn't had a lived experience is just words, however if people in that situation can see real success stories, they develop an understanding and truly believe it's possible.

During his time at The Glen, he reconnected with culture an essential component of the program.

"It's so important for indigenous people to know who you are, to know where to go. If you don't know, you're a lost soul," he said.

Mr Amatto, a proud Wiradjuri advocate demonstrating the power connection to culture. (Image: supplied)

Connecting with culture gave him the healing that he needed and once he had healed, everything else came into play.

When it was time to leave The Glenn, staff made sure he had the skills he needed to survive and all the essentials such as a birth certificate, license, Medicare card, key card.

They even assisted with employment opportunities by utilising connections established in the community with the local businesses.

"Everything was all in place," he said.

"If we had a lot more places like that where we can get help as easy as you used to get locked away, we would see big results in Australia and that's why I advocate for the stuff I do.

"We need more cultural rehabs and less jails. The only way we can heal is through these services.

"There's too much damage. I think day programs aren't going to change that or services that you just walk into. We need places where we can go and sit and talk and let the fog lift."

Mr Amatto said it took him ten months of the program to start feeling like he could function in society again and perform simple tasks of ordering at a café, actions he has seen others in similar positions struggle with even to this day.

He spoke of the stigma attached to having a criminal record when looking for employment.

"How are we supposed to support these people if you are going to judge them for their criminal history?," he said.

After The Glenn, Mr Amatto established local roots and hasn't looked back. He is proud to be providing a life for his children that is different to what he knew, children who have never seen drinking or drugs in their home and are fiercely connected to their culture.

"I take my boys out on country and I dance with them and just… I can see the difference. What I'm saying is my kids have a bit of a chance because I've broken chains," he said.

"I've seen stuff in jail that would make a glass eye cry.

"Ten-twenty men lining up for that one syringe and that syringe is getting so brittle that it's breaking in their arms, it's snapping in there…

"I've seen men come in for as little as a traffic fine and then walk out an addict.

"Don't try to tell me the systems rehabilitating our people because it's not. All it's doing is causing a lot more trauma to the trauma, a lot more mental health and the loved one's are copping it from ripple effect as well.

"'Cause if I'm getting locked up I've got poor old mum and nan and pop looking after the kids so they don't go into docs or facs… whatever it's called these days."

Mr Amatto said the burden that incarceration places on families who still need to survive when their family members are locked away and the added burden of dealing with additional mental health issues and addiction when their loved ones come home is challenging.

"For every single individual that is locked away, families are copping the brunt of it," he said.

"When you're locked away, you can't be vulnerable. That's where a lot of our brothers and sisters are struggling.

We can't talk about you know, our mental health we can't talk about how I'm struggling today… as a man you've got to have this facade and this mask.

And you've got to be this tough boy and that's one of the reasons the system's not working."

At the time when Mr Amatto had been clean and sober for seven years with roots tied to the Central Coast where he healed, he started delivering workshops across the country to inspire others. His community in Wellington started noticing just how much he had changed from the troubled kid they last saw and invited him back to work with his own mob.

Now truly elevated in his career and giving back to his community, Mr Amatto runs several programs to help children and adults who are experiencing what he has in his lifetime.

Recent ventures have included the creation of the Darrambal program at Wellington Public School, along with Wellington Yindamarra Healing Men's Group and More Cultural Rehabs Less Jail program that supports community men on parole on their road to recovery and wellbeing.

The program is delivered through the Wellington Aboriginal Corporation Health Service (WACHS) in New South Wales.

The Darrambal program, which translates to Roadway Footprints in Wiradjuri, sees Mr Amatto working with up to twelve predominantly Aboriginal students in Years 4-6 who were showing signs of disengagement. Since their involvement in the program, attendance rates are now souring.

The turnaround in that program is unbelievable," Mr Amatto said.

"The reason it works is because I've got a connection with mum and dad or uncle, because I grew up in Wellington."

Mr Amatto as a broken and hurting nineteen year old to the man he has become today. (Image: @JeffJails/X)

He said long-term engagements are vital to the success of the program.

"To make change, we've got to be consistent as well. Consistency is key for change. I can't just go in and tell a story and blowout and think that is going to work."

The program connects students with culture and provides a wraparound holistic approach that also engages parents and carers at home.

"If we aren't engaging with what's going on at home, it's like two steps forward, five steps back when they go back home," he said.

"So I try and sit down with mum and dad, guardians too".

An important area for Mr Amatto is supporting the students transition into high school, because based on his knowledge and personal experiences, that is where the gap lies.

The program he has created feeds back into itself, with high school students who were involved in the program previously now taking on leadership roles to look after and mentor newcomers with a strong connection that has already been established.

Mr Amatto said that when he first meets his students many of them have had no experience with their culture, he often hears them say "'I don't know what my totem and I don't know what culture or tribe I'm from'"

"It's really sad to see that kind of stuff."

However he said now the kids in his program all introduce themselves and their mob with pride and practice traditional dance with him on country.

"Their attendance rates are up to scratch now, their behaviours are just changing. You wouldn't think they were the same kids," he said.

The Yindamara Healing mens group started when demand increased for Mr Amatto's work in the community sector. He was soon approached to design a program by the probation and parole unit of his local area.

He said an issue the community sector faced was overlooking the right people and employing people who aren't suitable for the programs.

"That's where we're a bit of a struggle with our communities as well, we have to get the right people in the right position," he said.

"I get it, I understand it, you know the colonisation and the intergenerational trauma stuff has affected people massively, but what's affecting our communities is we haven't got the right people in the right positions.

"I'm perfect for drug and alcohol work, because I practice what I preach. You know, I don't drink and I don't drug and I've got empathy for it, and I've got passion for it. I think I'm the right candidate for drug and alcohol work."

Mr Amatto said this problem extends to other sectors.

"If you're not passionate about your position, you won't make change. If you want to make change, you've got to go that extra 1 per cent and you got to give the extra mile, you've got to try to work more than that. It's not a nine to five job, if you're in this kind of field," he said.

Mr Amatto provided four key points for those in the process of implementing significant change in their lives.

"Consistency - that's number one. Consistency is key for any kind of change," he said.

"Good company – It's hard to soar like an eagle when you're surrounded by turkeys. You need a positive support group, you just need a couple of mates you can reach out to and surround yourself with good people.

"Be kind – It cost zero to be kind.

"(And) connect with culture - for Indigenous people and as an Indigenous man, start the healing processes and connect to culture. You must know who you are to know where you're going."

Mr Amatto is now moving ahead with advocacy, program development and delivery in the community sector.

He said adequate funding is still a significant issue that many programs like his experience, which is limiting the ability of Indigenous organisations to close the disadvantage gap.

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