This GrogWatch guest post comes courtesy of Nicqui Yazdi, the coordinator of the Byron Schoolies Safety Response and the Byron Schoolies HUB. She’s also the Team Leader of BUDDI – the Byron Underage Drinking and Drug Initiative – the local Community Drug Action Team for Byron Bay, New South Wales. Read more from Nicqui.
More than 30 years ago I headed off to the Gold Coast with a group of about 100 other young people from Toowoomba to celebrate the end of school. It was the first time I got really drunk and the first and only time I got really sunburned as a result of passing out face down in the sand after our very first night of seriously heavy binge drinking. These days I’d be called a ‘foolie’ because unlike my friends, who were all 17 or 18 and had genuinely finished Year 12, I was only 15 but had already left school, as you could back then, and was working full-time. Thankfully, some things have changed for the better since then and young people are staying in school for longer and getting much better educations, but some things like schoolies and binge drinking have got a lot worse.
I don’t really know when schoolies became a rite of passage, but it could very well have been my friends and I who started the whole thing. It almost feels like karmic pay-back that these days I run the Byron Schoolies Safety Response, Schoolies HUB and am also Team Leader of the local Community Drug Action Team – BUDDI (Byron Underage Drinking & Drug Initiative). Byron Bay is now the number two destination in Australia for schoolies celebrations. Locals immediately know the schoolies are in town when they see shopping trolleys overloaded with alcohol being wheeled around, followed by a few more people with ‘slabs’ over their shoulders. Our little town struggles with the issues caused by 10,000 young people coming here every year to ‘celebrate’ finishing Year 12. They bring a unique set of problems that take a massive community effort to manage.
For many of the schoolies, just like me, it will be the first time they get really drunk. It will also be the first time some have sex and yes, even unwanted and quite possibly, unprotected sex. These young people have no idea that Byron has among the highest STI rates in the country – and we top the lot when it comes to chlamydia. Sexual health awareness, quirky posters and free condoms are a big part of the Byron Schoolies HUB. One thing they can all relate to is the message in a very special set of posters from a Byron-based initiative called ‘Cringe The Binge’, which aims to get Australians to ‘binge on life’ instead. At first glance they look like band posters, but with catchy names like ‘Chlamydia and the Burning Bush’, ‘The Brain Dead Binge Drinkers’, ‘DJ Boozer’ and ‘King Hit in the cab queue’, the young people soon take a really good look at them and tell us they totally get it.
Over the last six years Byron has put together a huge response so we can do whatever possible to keep these young visitors safe. Our Schoolies HUB marquee in Main Beach Park is open 24/7 for 18 long days and nights, and is staffed around the clock by 100 or so dedicated local volunteers who give out information, free condoms, water, sunblock, and at night, when they are at their most concentrated numbers in the park, lots of first aid and vomit bags! We also hold nightly ‘Blow Zero’ competitions with great prizes for those who can blow zero on a breathalyser. They love this ‘game’ and probably don’t even realise it’s a tactic we’re using to delay their drinking.
We have great help from the legendary Red Frogs volunteers (they have a great Facebook page), who’ve been coming to Byron to help with schoolies since long before any of us locals even realised we had schoolies here. Their DJs play music in the park til midnight each night to help keep as many as possible in one safe place – especially under-18s. They also cook free pancakes and chai, so we can fill some of the schoolies’ tummies with something to dampen down the alcohol they’ve consumed. The Red Frogs have a 24-hour hotline in all schoolies destinations around Australia, including Byron, and they help out massively at night, walking people home and keeping an eye on them if they’re unwell, upset or have separated from their friends. They also help us get those who can walk to the hospital, and so much more.
The Byron Bay Liquor Accord works really hard to make sure they have special initiatives in place during this time to help reduce alcohol-related incidents. This is an all-year-round thing for them, as every weekend is a bit like schoolies in a way. As a tourist destination, Byron is overloaded with young people looking to party.
For those of us putting together the Byron Schoolies Safety Response, our biggest problem is coming up with the huge amount of money we need each year to make it happen. We are a working group of concerned locals and our annual budget for the HUB alone is around $24,000. Byron Shire Council also spends huge sums, adding extra life-saving patrols, cleaning public amenities, adding bins around town and cleaning up after these young visitors. In the Schoolies HUB we use more than 10,000 paper cups for our hydration station, thousands of band-aids, hundreds of bandages, and lots of other first aid items. We give out more than 8,000 condoms, use lots of ice bags and space blankets and all manner of other items that cost money. We hire the marquee, have a huge insurance bill, provide t-shirts for our volunteers and training in things like first aid when we can afford it, all the fees and permissions needed for the HUB and much more. Some years we get grants – this year we had none – so we are relying on donations and contributions from businesses and kind-hearted people. Less than two months away we are only half-way to our budget.
Some may see schoolies as a rite of passage, but not so in Byron; we see it as a time where we need to come together and do whatever we can to look after our young visitors and local community. It’s not a rite, it’s a wrong, but it happens year after year and all we can do is look out for these young folk while they celebrate the end of their school days, and hopefully protect them from everything that can go wrong when you mix alcohol with the teenage brain, inexperience and minimal life-skills. For most of these visitors it’s the first time they’ve even had a holiday away from home and without their parents. It can be wonderful and it can be awful and Byron Bay does what it can to make sure it is a memorable time for all the right reasons.
If you’d like to know more about what we do, or sponsor, or contribute to the efforts of the Byron Schoolies Safety Response and the Schoolies HUB, contact coordinator Nicqui Yazdi on 0402013177 or email her. Byron would be grateful for any assistance offered.
Learn more about Cringe the Binge.