I first met Heath Ducker as a young lad on a leadership program I used to run for Youth Insearch. He always impressed me with his sincerity and his willingness to learn.
Youth Insearch was established by a remarkable couple, Ron and Judith Barr. Over the years more than 30,000 troubled teenagers have passed through their programs and put their lives back on course. Many have achieved outstanding success within their families, their communities and their professions. Heath Ducker’s story, which includes his struggle on Kokoda, is the story of Youth Insearch.
Heath is a remarkable young man who threw off the shackles of an almost Dickensian childhood and is now on his way to professional and personal success.
One of 10 children with many different fathers, Heath lived in abject poverty in a run down house. At the age of 12, he was sexually abused by his best friend’s father.
The Sydney-based ‘Youth Insearch’ organisation became his saviour. It brought him into contact with other young people, some of whom had managed to overcome extraordinary deprivation. Their stories inspired the young Heath Ducker to work to overcome the handicaps of his own difficult background.
He seized on education as his ticket out of the cycle of deprivation. Unable to study in the chaos and noise of a crowded house, he retreated to the rooftops to study.
He became the youngest person ever to be appointed as a Youth Insearch leader and has become a significant role model for troubled youth.
Heath joined a leadership program I organised for Youth Insearch in 1998 – unfortunately he tore a muscle in his chest and we had to leave him in Menari. ‘I stood on the track and wathched the rest of the team trudge up the side of the next mountain’ he wrote. ‘It was a moment of excruciating disappointment. My first response was to run after them, but on the edge of the village I realised that I could easily jeopardise other team member’s safety, as well as my own if my health deteriorated on the track . . . I turned slowly and walked back to our sad, exhausted, injured little posse’. Heath returned and successfully completed the trek in 2003. ‘For me, Kokoda has always been about the ability of the human spirit to overcome adversity. No one will live a life without setbacks, but we need not let them defeat us. The key is our attitude – whether we lose faith or get back on our feet and have another crack at it. I’ve come to believe that life is strikingly simiar to a hike through the New Guinea Highlands. Every experience is a mountain with a peak to climb, a descent to safely navigate and a lesson or two to learn en route. The aim is to reach the other side a better person than you were when you ste out.’
‘I promised myself that one day I would return and complete the trek’.He did.
In 2003 I invited him to join us in a leadership role. He wrote: ‘Kododa has always been about the ability of the human spirit to overcome adversity. Now one will live a life without setbacks, but we need not let them defear us. The key is our attitude – whether we lose faith or get back on our feet and have another crack at it. In fact, I’ve come to believe that that life is strikingly similar to a hike through the New Guinean Highlands. Every experience is a mountain with a peak to climb, a descent to safely navigate and a lesson or two to learn en route. The aim is to reach the other side a better person than you were when you set out.’
Heath has since been invited to advise the Prime Minister about youth affairs and has formulated his own strong ideas about welfare delivery.
Now, at 25 years old and as a result of extraordinary courage and resilience, Heath Ducker is a lawyer with a passionate commitment to improving the lot of underprivileged kids. He lobbies politicians on their behalf, gives his weekends over to voluntary work at camps for teenagers in trouble and he leads treks for young people along the notorious Kokoda Trail with Adventure Kokoda.
In May this year the Prime Minister of Australia, The Hon Kevin Rudd MP, presented him with ADC’s Leadership Award 2008, presented to only 26 people from across Australia.
When Heath appeared on ABC television’s Australian Story in 2006, he provided inspiration for thousands of viewers. His life story has continued to inspire as one of the most frequently viewed episodes on the ABC TV website.
‘When I think back to my first year at Youth Insearch’, he wrote, ‘to my leadership training and the slow, steady process of coming to terms with my childhood, my family background and my sexual abuse, I am reminded of a poem by Robert Browning:
‘You cant heal others until you have healed yourself,’ his mentor, Ron Barr would remind Heath. ‘Later I also realised that wisdom doesn’t arise out of an experience spontaneously. There needs to be a desire to learn from it – and that desire really can’t arise until we’ve begun to come to terms with our problems.
‘In retrospect, it feels to me as though my own healing was accomplished in an instant, but it wasn’t, of course. It was an ongoing process, and people along the way kept me moving forward. I remember feeling, around the time of that first leadership camp, that I’d developed a more enduring inner peace and sense of self-worth and purpose than even weeks before’. . .
I walked a mile with Pleasure,
She chatted all the way,
But left me none the wiser,
For all she had to say.
I walked a while with Sorrow,
And ne’er a word said she,
But, oh, the things I learned from her
When Sorrow walked with me.
‘A Room at the Top’ by Heath Ducker and Samantha Trenoweth is published by Random House Australia
See his interview with Mel and Koshie at: