A program that helps young people in the Foster district to stay engaged and enjoy country life has defied COVID-19 lockdowns and is set to flourish thanks to a funding boost.

Manna Gum Community House has used $5000 from the Gardiner Foundation Community Grants Program in partnership with the Foundation for Rural & Regional Renewal to maintain the youth group’s impetus after a pilot-program was impacted by COVID-19 lockdowns.

Manna Gum manager Bec Matthews said the youth group and after-school space provided a vital outlet for young people as they emerge from lockdowns.

“We’ve got to make sure our young people are staying here and having a positive experience living in regional areas,” Ms Matthews said.

“Youth have been impacted disproportionally by COVID compared to the rest of the community and it’s more important than ever to have these programs running.”

The Gardiner Foundation Community Grant and other financial support allowed the youth program to continue during COVID, even though it had to operate remotely during lockdowns.

“Every time the schools were in lockdown we couldn’t run it, but we sustained the core group of kids,” Ms Matthews said.

“We had grant money to run the program so we supported young people in other ways, such as dropping off packages and doing what we could remotely, but fundamentally it is about people being together.

“We had a model that was working; an after-school program every Monday to get the kids together in a safe and welcoming environment.”

Ms Matthews said the program aimed to overcome a lack of local social activities for young people outside of sporting arenas.

“We wanted an informal place for young people to create their own space,” she said.

There is some mentoring from group coordinator Tracey James and volunteers but young people are encouraged to take the lead.

“Tracey has developed the program by listening and responding to the young people who attend the group and has a great rapport with them, which has really been the foundation of the program’s success,” she said.

“Young people contributed to the design of the area and what they want to do and it’s really working because it has been based on what the kids want,” Ms Matthews said.

“It’s very informal: they didn’t want to come in after school and do formal workshops, they just want a place where they can hang out and have a bit of fun, use the Wi-Fi or do what they want to do.”

The program was originally targeted at 12 to 25-year-olds, but it mostly attracted young people aged around 12 and 13. It has been expanded to include 11-year-olds.

“It’s mainly those going into Year 7 and becoming teenagers,” Ms Matthews said. “They seem to really appreciate the support they got socially from having an extra social activity after class. It builds their confidence and their connections.

“What’s really lovely is that we find kids that don’t normally hang out together at schools connect and there are friendships across different age groups,” Ms Matthews added.

The Gardiner Foundation Community Grants funding contributes to the paid youth worker and food.

Others supporting the youth program include ABC Heywire, the Toora and Foster Community Bank and VicHealth.

The grant is the latest in a series of supports offered by the Gardiner Foundation to Manna Gum. “We’ve been very well supported by Gardiner Foundation which has really helped our sustainability and to provide new programs,” Ms Matthews said. Previous grants have been used to develop the backyard and upgrade IT equipment.

“We really appreciate it,” Ms Matthews said. “Manna Gum celebrated its 40th anniversary last year and continues to run activities and programs for social connection and supporting the community and we rely on grants to run these programs.”

Now in its 20th year, the Gardiner Foundation Community Grants Program is delivered by the Foundation for Rural & Regional Renewal (FRRR). Grants of up to $5,000 will help not-for-profit organisations in small Victorian dairy communities deliver projects that will benefit local people and strengthen their ability to deal with local issues and enhance existing community infrastructure.

Applications for the 2022 program are now open and close April 14 and can be found at https://www.gardinerfoundation.com.au/communitygrants/