Despite growing up in a disadvantaged area, Melissa Abu-Gazaleh faced grim hopes of achieving her dream of entering university but was saved by the many female only programs she accessed during high school.
Appreciative of these opportunities, she turned her attention towards helping young men, after realising that they were drastically over-represented in violent crimes, suicide and anti-social behaviour.
She investigated programs that focused on improving men’s social education, but could not find any existing groups. Aged 19, frustrated and determined, Melissa formed the Top Blokes Foundation to improve young men’s social and mental health outcomes within Australia.
What has Melissa achieved with Top Blokes so far?
Ten years into its operation, Top Blokes Foundation now helps over 1,100 boys aged 14-24 each year through social education and peer-mentoring programs. As a youth-led organisation, Top Blokes reaches out to vulnerable, at-risk males through qualified youth workers that the boys feel comfortable with and can relate to. The Junior Top Blokes program specifically targets young men aged 14-17 with workshop topics including; alcohol and other drugs, mental health, masculinity, anger management, cyber bullying and sexting, realities of pornography, peer pressure and risk taking, leadership and teamwork.
The benefits and results of Top Blokes include increased mental wellbeing and self-confidence and techniques for conflict resolution and anger management. Many participants of the program have also gone on to become Top Blokes Youth Ambassadors themselves, and have found the program has even improved their prospects to enter the workforce.
Keaton James, a Top Blokes graduate and now a Youth Ambassador, inspires his peers to consider issues such as gender equality. “I learnt how I could make a difference, and it starts with how we talk about girls and how we treat them with respect. The Top Blokes mentors showed us that if we take a stand against the discrimination and disrespect we see, we can make a big difference,” he says.
Melissa has been recognised for her dedication to improving young men’s health. She is the 2016 NSW Young Australian of the Year, selected as one of Australia’s 100 Brightest Young Minds, named in Australia’s Young and Extraordinary and is the has also been a guest speaker at major events including the National Boy’s Health Forum.
Melissa plans to raise the profile of young men’s health issues and build a strong platform for young men to have a voice on the very issues that impact them. “When we invest in boys we change the course of our future as a cohesive and equal society. Working with thousands of young men has taught me this. When we educate boys on social issues, it is here that we can empower them to make the changes needed to improve society as a whole. It is an investment in our future that we can all benefit from,” she says.
With issues such as domestic violence and youth suicide at the forefront of the national agenda, Melissa is dedicated to make a positive difference and be part of the societal change that is so desperately needed.