Community Champion: PJ Burridge

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PJ Burridge, a dedicated Youth Development Officer at the Sarina Youth Centre, has emerged as a beacon of hope and inspiration in her local community of Sarina.

Born in Papua New Guinea and later adopted through a cultural practice known as kinship care, PJ’s upbringing laid the foundation for her transformative journey into youth work. In a recent interview with @ The Coalface, she shared her powerful story and highlighted how her personal experiences have shaped her dedication to making a positive impact on the lives of young people.

Growing up, PJ found herself navigating between different families, primarily living with her older sister in Townsville. This unique form of adoption, deeply rooted in Papua New Guinean and Torres Strait Islander cultural practices, exposed her to the complexities and challenges of kinship care. PJ explained that this practice, although common, presented an identity crisis for many individuals as they discovered their adopted status later in life. Recognising the need for change, the Australian government implemented a policy to allow individuals to update their birth certificates, reflecting their current family rather than their biological one.

PJ’s difficult childhood was marked by neglect and abuse due to her mother’s alcoholism, making her biological parents unfit to care for her. Her older sister and brother-in-law stepped in to provide a safe and nurturing environment. PJ emphasised the significance of her kinship care experience in Australia, where she witnessed the devastating impact of parental unfitness and the importance of stable and supportive environments for children.

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Despite her turbulent upbringing, PJ’s resilience shone through as she overcame personal challenges and embarked on a path of self-discovery.

She described her journey through mental health struggles, including severe anxiety and depression that consumed her early adulthood. PJ’s nomadic lifestyle, moving between cities and countries, was an attempt to escape her problems. However, it was during her lowest point that she found solace and healing through her newfound Christian faith.

Reconnecting with her biological father and embracing her spirituality became pivotal moments in PJ’s life. Her depression and anxiety dissipated rapidly, leaving her with a renewed sense of joy and peace.

Encouraged by a mentor within her church community, PJ redirected her aspirations from studying paramedical science to pursuing a career in youth work. She enrolled in online youth work courses while volunteering at a community centre in the Upper Ross area, where she developed a deep affection for the spirited and cheeky young individuals she encountered.

PJ’s unwavering determination and strong faith guided her to seek on-the-job training opportunities. An unexpected job advertisement in Mackay caught her attention, and she knew it was a sign from above. Although she faced stiff competition, PJ secured a youth worker trainee position, prompting her to relocate to Mackay. Her devotion to the well-being and future of young people fuelled her passion for the field, which she credits to her own transformative experiences.

She firmly believes that her tumultuous past has prepared her to understand the struggles faced by today’s youth. PJ is not an idealistic youth worker, but rather an empathetic and relatable figure who draws strength from her personal triumphs over adversity.

“When I meet young people, they don’t see my struggles,” she shared. “They say, you can’t relate to us because you have a perfect life with a husband and a great job. And I tell them, it wasn’t always this way. I know what it feels like to live in an unsafe household, to be homeless, to hit rock bottom. That’s what a majority of the young people I support now are living through, very similar to mine and others growing up in kinship care.”

Pj’s work at the Sarina Youth Centre is always evolving and dependent on the interests and the needs of young people. This has included getting a physiotherapist to run football and swimming programs, local Indigenous artists to teach art skills, and liaising with local community organisations to deliver services to the young people of Sarina like Deadly Choices healthy lifestyle program. PJ also personally runs the Peer Skills Program supporting peers in crisis and R.A.G.E (emotional regulation) programs. If there are needs identified the centre will run programs to address them such as sexual health, safe relationships and boundaries and health eating.

“Every week we try and teach our young people a new skill. In the school holidays we took them to Rowallan Park just north of Mackay to go mountain bike riding. And then we do small things like arts and crafts days, we’ll get a local hairdresser in to cut hair before school starts back,” explained PJ.

Looking ahead, Burridge plans to continue expanding her efforts by establishing mentorship programs and collaborating with local businesses to create employment opportunities for disadvantaged youth.

“I’m currently running a program every Tuesday afternoon where we have an Indigenous Elder come down to the centre. They are either Torres Strait Islander, Aboriginal or a South Sea Islander, and they interact with the young people because what I’ve noticed is that a lot of the young people around here don’t get the opportunities for mentorship. They need intergenerational connection.”

PJ’s vision is to build a community where every young person feels valued, supported, and empowered to pursue their dreams. Her story serves as a powerful reminder that one’s past does not define their future. Through her unwavering faith, resilience, and commitment to making a positive difference, she has become a community champion and a beacon of hope for young people facing similar challenges. With PJ at the helm, the community can look forward to a brighter and more inclusive future for its youth.

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