40. Glenn Farrington and Brett Ross

2 Jul

_MG_9969-EditIt is quite extraordinary sitting across from Glenn and Brett. They make you feel at ease, but also in awe. Between them they have over fifty years of experience in youth work, and despite this, they are not jaded. Together, they present with overwhelming warmth, and speak with compassion and care. They are two youth workers from Open House, a community house currently based in Ivanhoe but shortly moving to Macleod. With Open House, Glenn and Brett run programs and mentor youth and generally are known as people you can trust and turn to.

Before officially becoming a staff member eighteen years ago, Brett was a plumber and had volunteered at Open House for two years. He was looking for a change and saw the good that Open House does and transitioned to full time youth work. With his family background to Open House (Glenn’s parents were the founders) was almost preordained but you can’t say he is there out of a sense of duty or obligation. It is pure passion; a drive to help others and pass on knowledge. He has been involved with Open House for over twenty years, and youth work for over thirty, as well as being a pastry chef before making the full-time transition to Open House.

In the early 1990s, a group was started: The Banyule Network. It was a support group for youth worker, who, in the words of Glenn, “didn’t know what we were doing”. They were all blue collar workers – “mostly blokes”, he says, “which I thought was weird as I thought it was mostly females in this industry” – who knew they wanted to help and make a difference but needed the extra support. Glenn is passionate about mentoring and believes all youth workers should have a mentor and supportive work systems in place. He speaks highly of Open House and mentions it was only earlier that day he went into his boss’s office with a problem. Having the open-door system, he says, is imperative to learning, development, and the worker’s own well-being.

They tell me about different participants they’ve had over the years, the programs they’ve offered. Many of the programs Open House offer start organically: a participant comes to the worker, they identify a need and a program is crafted. About ten years ago, they tried to target youth smokers. They had to invent ways to get the effects of smoking across and eventually thought of breathing through straws. “Want to know what it’s like to be a smoker, thirty years in the future? Breathe through a McDonalds drinking straw and try to play basketball,” Glenn tells me, laughing. By decreasing the size of the straw – McDonalds, standard, Chuppa-Chup – the harder it is to breathe thus the lungs of a smoker down the track. It’s a real practical way to reach youths who smoke who otherwise can’t begin to imagine the health risks so far in the future.

“He couldn’t take more than five steps,” Glenn says, laughing at the memory of a participant trying to play basketball while breathing through a Chuppa-Chup straw. It’s a funny memory but a sombering experience, and just another example of Open House’s innovation and commitment to helping people, no matter the road blocks (they had originally applied for assistance and funding to do a harm minimisation program around smoking and were unsuccessful, and despite this found alternative methods to present the program within their constraints).

They operate on a friendship model which gives them more leeway to work differently with their participants. “It’s about meeting them where they’re at,” Brett says. There are programs to see people from prep to elder age; and people know that long-term support is there: whenever they need it. Respect is also key component for both Glenn and Brett. “You tell me straight,” a participant once told Glenn. “The kids know Brett believes in them. You can tell by the way he tears up,” Glenn says, a little smile on his face.

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Calling them mere co-workers would be a disservice to their relationship. Jostling around together in front of me and friends outside the workplace, Brett and Glenn are clearly close mates. “Would saying I love him be wrong?” Glenn joked, and for a moment they lovingly, jokingly, looked into each other’s eyes. Glenn says that he’s prettier than Brett, and Brett suggests that Glenn spends more time in the salon that he does. Despite the laughs, it’s obvious they care greatly for each other – but more so have huge amounts of respect for each other and their work. “There is only one word,” Glenn says. “It’s a privilege [to work with and know Brett]. We hold each other very close and very dear.” Brett returns the sentiment – after joking that Glenn read the cue cards correctly (and his $50 is in the mail) – saying “When talking about Glenn, its passion and compassion. Passion is what drives you and compassion is what you give out.” He says that he’s never met anyone as passionate as Glenn, or anyone more willing to take on complex cases and never them turn away, rising to the challenge.

As they walk me out, Glenn explains that to respect others personal space, they greet females by touching elbows. We touch elbows and say goodbye, and as the wind catches the door and slams behind me I know that their door has seen the best and worst of people – but Glenn and Brett are working hard to bring their best, and that’s a warming thought on a cold windy day.

Words: Megan Burke

Photo: Sean Porter

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