Bernie Shakeshaft, who works with at-risk teenagers in Armidale to help them on the path towards employment and further education and training, has been named this year's Australian Local Hero.
Mr Shakeshaft established BackTrack in 2006, a program which has since supported more than 1000 young people towards finding work and education opportunities and expanded into other NSW towns.
On Saturday, he called on Prime Minister Scott Morrison to support long-term holistic support for Australian kids, and encouraged young people doing it tough to hang in for help that was on its way.
"I started BackTrack, seriously as simple as this - to keep kids alive, to keep them out of jail, and to chase their dreams," Mr Shakeshaft said in accepting the award.
"To be recognised and stand beside so many cracking Aussies is touching, and it's humbling. To be here because some kids who were locked up in a juvenile detention centre that I have never met who saw our documentary and made the nomination, makes it even more special.
"Sometimes, I think we underestimate the power and the potential of our young people. Our youth are our nation's most valuable asset. As parents, grandparents, brothers, sisters and friends, our kids bring us together. As a nation, they're our future. As a society, they're the most honest barometer of how we're tracking."
BackTrack's participants train dogs, learn trade skills, tackle an individually tailored school curriculum and work together on other local projects.
The program has gained the trust of magistrates, the police and mayors. There has been a more than 38 per cent drop in Armidale's youth crime rate since the program began
A 2018 documentary, BackTrack Boys, brought Mr Shakeshaft's work to a wider audience, with a growing demand for similar programs in other areas.
BackTrack programs have recently been set up in Dubbo, Lake Cargelligo, Condobolin and Bourke.
Mr Shakeshaft, 52, has worked closely with Indigenous trackers as a jackeroo in the Northern Territory and as a youth worker in NSW before starting BackTrack.
"We take kids that are on long term suspensions or completely removed from the education system - it is not an Indigenous program although 75 per cent of the kids we have are," Mr Shakeshaft said in 2018.
"Most of these kids have a mountain of issues so we take a holistic approach and fill gaps in the system, sometimes they might take three or four years in the program.
"We have an 87 per cent success rate. That is 87 per cent of kids that leave the program are either in full time education and training or full time employment."
Mr Shakeshaft in July last year said there had been a 35 per cent cut in juvenile crime in a year when new programs had started in Gunnedah, Armidale and Glen Innes.
Now 40 teenagers - male and female - come daily to training sessions and classes at a former council shed in Armidale, which has been part of the program since the beginning.
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