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Vandenbergh reshaping his Port legacy with new Aboriginal youth foundation

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The former director of Port Adelaide Football Club’s Aboriginal programs has teamed up with the state’s inaugural Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People to launch a new not-for-profit cultural engagement foundation, building on program concepts developed at the Power.

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Paul Vandenbergh, who was last week also appointed to a locally-based senior role in the AFL Talent Team,  says the venture was the culmination of a direction he and Commissioner for Aboriginal Children and Young People April Lawrie “wanted to head down for a number of years to establish an Aboriginal not-for-profit working with Aboriginal young people”.

For Vandenbergh, a one-time Canberra Cannons NBL player, it was an “opportunity to continue with some of the programs” he pioneered at Port Adelaide, “and reshape them a little bit”.

The  Wirangu man from SA’s far west coast said the Foundation, which launched today at the AFL Max facility near Adelaide Airport, would initially focus on two “keystone programs”, one of which – Tjindu STRONG – provides cultural and educational support for Aboriginal students in remote communities, encouraging “smart life choices supported by guided discussion workshops”.

It’s effectively an extension of the WillPower program Vandenbergh developed while at the football club, which he left late last year before this month being announced as the AFL’s new Diversity Talent Manager.

“It’s a different name, and a little different with how it’s delivered as well,” he says of Tjindu STRONG’s roots in the WillPower program.

Tjindu’s other startup program is its AFL Max Academy, in partnership with the AFL Max facility established by former Geelong premiership player and Crows forward James Podsiadly.

The Academy is billed as an invitation-based “high-performance Australian Football program for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander senior students”.

It will see 30 boys and 30 girls attend once-a-week sessions, with successful participants earning a Certificate III in Sport Coaching, points towards their SACE certificate and opportunities for further workforce participation.

Vandenbergh says the program “replaces the old Aboriginal academies programs” formerly run at Port.

“They kind of made a decision around the whole COVID period that they wanted to scale back some of the community programs,” he said.

“The timing was right – we were heading down this path to setting up the Foundation and could transition [the kernel of the programs] across without compromising the IP [intellectual property] of the Port Adelaide Academy.”

Of his departure from the club, he says: “I think the timing was right for me to leave.”

“I’d been at Port Adelaide 10 years… I was looking for other opportunities and the Foundation became really important.”

He says he’s also excited for his new role with the AFL, through which he hopes to expand the AFL Max-based program into other states.

“This model we created with Tjindu and AFL Max I think can really be replicated nationally,” he said.

“James Podsiadly and I have been talking about how we can roll it out in 2022 in another state, likely Victoria.”

Mirning and Kokatha woman Lawrie says the Foundation builds on areas of need she’s identified both in her current role and an extensive background in Aboriginal health, education, child and family welfare, foster care, and youth justice services policy.

“We felt SA needed something for our Aboriginal young people that responded to their need to connect to culture,” she said.

She said the programs would focus on education, development and leadership, but “with a strong sense of cultural identity”.

“This is something I’ve been working on with Pauly for a number of years… to focus on getting an Aboriginal-led committee-based organisation that focuses on our Aboriginal young people in development and growing them as future leaders,” she said.

“Engaging in education is really important.”

But she says that engagement can be leveraged from a love of sport – a foundation of Vandenbergh’s approach at Port Adelaide.

She said the cultural engagement component was “really important… developing a positive cultural identity and knowing who you are as a young Aboriginal person”.

“We want to give Aboriginal children and young people the knowledge and understanding that to be successful doesn’t mean you have to abandon your Aboriginal identity,” she said.

That includes pushing back against “the stereotypes and negative impressions that the media and social media portray”.

“We need to overcome perceptions that all Aboriginal people fail in education, are locked up, have poor health, poor opportunities in employment,” she said.

“Young people want to take part in something that portrays them as being successful, and successful in identity.”

The initial programs are funded by federal and state government grants, with the founders hoping today’s launch will promote philanthropic interest from the corporate sector.

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