Guardian angels who changed the face of Schoolies
Booze-fuelled Schoolies can get hectic. And when they do, many young school leavers won't call triple-0 for help but they will - and do - call Red Frogs.
A fixture of Schoolies for 23 years and now festivals and sporting events right across Australia, Red Frogs volunteers have been safeguarding vulnerable school leavers, organising walk homes, clean-ups, pancake cook-ups, water and other assistance to ensure loose behaviour doesn't end in tragedy.
Red Frogs Australia founder and CEO Andy Gourley said a large volume of calls to their hotline each year came from young people worried about friends but too afraid to call an ambulance.
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"We do a lot of education that says, look if you ring triple-0, you're not going to get into trouble," he said.
"It's medical not police, so try to be as honest as possible because you might just save their life."
Founded in 1997, Red Frogs Australia has helped change the face of Schoolies, shaping a peer-led culture where mates look out for mates.
Armed with red frog lollies as icebreakers and pancakes to feed pre-loaders, they're now a much-loved and trusted part of schoolies culture.
Volunteers are often invited into parties as well as walking the streets, they operate live-in teams at hotels because "30-floor buildings aren't the safest places" when booze and inexperience is involved.
"We started with 17 volunteers now it's up to 1400 looking after 80,000 at Schoolies in 17 locations around Australia and in Bali and Fiji," Mr Gourley said.
"Our teams aren't police, aren't security, aren't mum and dad, and a lot are 18-25 themselves, so it's like a peer-based sober guide modelling."
A former accountant and youth worker, Red Frogs emerged from the skateboarding clubs Gourley ran through his Brisbane church.
"Those guys got to Year 12, went to Schoolies and ran amok through some hotels on the Gold Coast," he said.
"I just felt really sorry for hotel managers trying to keep a lid on 30,000 17-year-olds on the Gold Coast. I foolishly went to the manager and said, 'I'm a youth worker, do you want a hand? They were my famous last words."
The skaters he had worked with came from difficult backgrounds, many with drug and alcohol issues, and he knew how far they had come.
"I just knew there were some real hot spots like Schoolies where all the work you've done with them over five years can be gone within a week," Mr Gourley said.
At that stage Schoolies was messy. A lot of booze, a lot of violence and a desperate need for sober people to bolster support and be in the right place at the right time.
"For me it was like getting on the front foot rather than the back foot because I think sometimes we can be a little more reactive instead of proactive," he said.
"You just can't have too many designated sober persons in those environments and if you get there early enough you can really stop things escalating in those situations."
Over the years, Schoolies has changed. Arrests are down, kids are drinking less and police and paramedics are dealing with fewer drunk teens and sexual assaults.
Walk homes alone have contributed to that, with RFA volunteers plucking vulnerable people asleep on the beach or on a random property and getting a team to take them home.
Drugs, however, are on a different trajectory.
"Alcohol in the last five years is decreasing for us but drugs are definitely increasing, the party drugs - MDMA, ecstasy," he said adding they were often cheaper than booze at parties and clubs.
"But the most common type of drug use we see is experimental drug use in that 17-18 age group, that's when someone's really drunk at a party and someone says, 'Here try this'.
"So we do a lot of training and education and early intervention saying look, if your mate is drunk, you need to mark up on then, don't let some feral come up to them at a party and say try this and they do it and they're gone.
"If people are vulnerable you need to protect them, and that goes from experimental drug use to sexual assault … so that's probably one of our number one strategies."
That early education begins at high school. RFA speak to about 60,000 students each year before they leave Year 12 and head to Schoolies Week.
"Education has been a game changer for us and we're finding this generation is listening more and they do take in more. There's a real social justice in them, they're wanting to look after their mates."
Working in the harm prevention space, Gourley said the bottom line was "people will choose to do what they're going to do".
"It's teaching them how to choose well. If your mate's really vulnerable and is unable to make that good decision, are you going to look after them well?
"What we find, if you're in a state of hang on, I'm going to look after my mate, you won't get as messed up yourself. That responsibility and peer leadership really helps."