Roving reporter Laura P spoke to two of the participants in the 2010 Heywire Youth Issues Forum in Canberra.
Heywire (new window) is a website for young people to share their stories, ideas and opinions. Every year 40 Heywire contributors travel to the Heywire Youth Issues Forum at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra. There's also an official reception at Parliament House.
Kerry O'Shea and Ellen Hayden are two 17-year-old Victorians who found themselves heading north for the Heywire 2010 forum.
After surviving a near-death experience at the age of 12, 17-year-old Kerry O'Shea has successfully fought back from a shocking spinal injury to emerge as an inspiring young leader.
"It was pretty horrible and I had eight months in a neck brace and spinal fusion surgery and I was only 12."
In a truly sink-or-swim situation, Kerry has overcome her horrific accident by taking on the gruelling English Channel swim. Twice.
"It's not worth letting things get in your way," she says. "Bad things get thrown at you but you've got to stay positive."
Having to undergo a very testing rehabilitation process, Kerry says she will never dive in the same pool again, but says she continues use her fears to fuel her new-found strength.
Growing up in the small north Victorian town of Piangil, where flies outnumber the total town population, 17-year-old Ellen Hayden says she was ready for an escape.
Taking herself to Finland for a year of self-discovery and challenge, she says her experience helped her to find the true value of the place she calls home.
"I didn't know what else was out there living in this bubble all my life," she says. "We were cut off from everything and I just wanted to know what else there was."
Taking the drastic step of halting her studies to sign away a year of her life, she booked her flights to Finland. Although both countries exist on the same planet, Ellen says the two places are worlds apart.
Ellen says she found it surprising when she began to feel nostalgic about her small 200-person outback Australian town. Returning home, Ellen says she will never overlook her wonderful Aussie life of utes and sheepdogs and owes her overseas experience a lot for giving her a more positive perspective on her dusty little town.
Kerry and Ellen both say they didn't expect that posting a blog about their personal stories on ABC's Heywire website would take them all the way to Parliament house in Canberra.
Recently attending the Heywire Youth Forum in Canberra as part of a group of 35 fresh-faced leaders aged between 16 to 23 years old, Ellen and Kerry and their fellow Heywire contributors began arriving to give their views on the issues important to young Australians.
The participants of the ABC's Heywire competition were selected for sharing their life stories about growing up in rural and regional Australia. Bringing together ideas from some of the most isolated parts of the country, the group hope to bring change to their communities.
Over five full days the Heywire participants participated in a whirlwind program that saw them tour Parliament House and shake hands with the big-wigs of Australian politics in an attempt to bridge the generational gap.
"It was more incredible than what I ever thought," Ellen says. "My favourite part was meeting the Minister for Agriculture (Tony Burke) and other politicians. I didn't expect they'd be interested in what I had to say, but they were."
However, the key reason for attending the conference was so that the Heywire youth leaders could discuss the hot topics on the minds of young Australians, including climate change, indigenous issues, boredom and boozy behaviour, youth mental health issues, university and even getting their driver's licence.
Indigenous ideas of young people
Weighing into the indigenous issues debate, Kerry and Ellen got involved in a discussion group to help shape a better future for Aboriginal youth.
"For me it was really interesting to listen to other people who were indigenous or had some sort of experience with Aboriginal people," Ellen says. "I haven't had many indigenous friends so I learnt a lot listening to the group."
Kerry says that a previous trip to an indigenous community in the Northern Territory had given her some insight into the challenges that are facing Aboriginal communities.
"When I went there it really stuck out to me the massive issues they have there," she says. "Some of the problems with alcohol abuse and poor education were sad but then I also saw their amazing culture, art and traditions."
"But there is the view of the general population toward Aboriginal people that is pretty negative. They just see the problems that are there - they can't see the beautiful culture."
Exploring solutions to close the gap by reducing racism and improving education outcomes, the discussion group hope their ideas will filter into the consciousness of those in Parliament, as well as the wider community.
"During school we have no indigenous education - we learn about European history," Ellen says. "So our group had a couple of proposals to make indigenous cultural awareness mainstream in schools."
A national view
Ellen says the experience helped young people to have a better national view of their country and what it can offer them.
"We were all from different places but I noticed we all have the same concerns nationally, such as climate change and youth mental health and well-being issues," Ellen says.
Ending the week-long event with a gala dinner at Old Parliament House, the pair say it was an amazing experience and are encouraging others to keep blogging on the issues important to them.
Entries are now open for the 2010 ABC Heywire Youth Forum competition (new window).
For more articles about getting involved in the political process, check out our Articles archive and our Do-it-yourself democracy section.
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