Written by Oliver Leach
My story starts off very slow, but I wouldn’t change a thing because it made me into the person I am today.
“Happiness can be found in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.”
I’m one of three boys on my father’s side and my mother’s only child. I spent most of my childhood going back and forth between the High Country in Northern Victoria and The Gold Coast in Queensland, Australia.
I have fond memories from when I was a child playing in rock pools, climbing trees, pretending to be one of the lost boys out in the bush with my cousins and fishing off the dinghy with my dad out in the bay. I’ve always found peace in nature and enjoyed discovering strange bugs and plants.
As I moved through primary school, I started to get bullied. I’m not entirely sure why, but I found comfort in my local Cubs Scout group that I joined. The kids where nice there, they took me under their wings. We built rafts, learnt how to tie knots and went on awesome hikes! I had a blast and was fortunate enough to graduate to Scouts. I remember feeling proud of myself and happy to have an escape from my school life.
I must have been an easy target for bullies at school because it followed me all the way from prep, through to year 11. When I entered into High School, however, the bullying became so bad that I tried to take my own life. I was 13 years old. I was very quickly diagnosed with depression and anxiety and put on some pretty strong medication to try and relieve some of the dark thoughts and suicidal tendencies I was experiencing and to calm my mind.
But if I’m completely honest, it didn’t help. As I got older my depression had gotten worse, I started to self-harm in an attempt to relieve some of the pain and frustration I was feeling. The bullying became worse, and finally I got expelled from high school because I fell into a bad crowd. I found myself homeless at 16-17 years old trying anything to detach and cope with my life. Struggling to find the reason to keep going in life, I found myself going to parties out in the bush and meeting people that had a massive appreciation and love of nature.
Reintroducing my love for the outdoors, I had an outlet for my mind again. Nature. I would spend all of my days breathing in fresh air with soft grass between my toes. In these moments, my mind found peace and even if it was for only 30 minutes, I would cherish every second of it.
Flash forward 6 years, my luck hadn’t improved. I was stuck in a rut, trying to cope with PTSD and trying to find myself a job so I could pay the bills. I had never really been given the opportunity to prove myself in a workplace before, and who can blame them? Granted, I had 6 years working in the same fish and chip shop for 10 bucks an hour, but this wasn’t paying the bills and they sold the business when I was 18. Because of my lack of experience, I think it deterred people from giving me a chance. Bit of a catch-22, right? You’ve got to have experience to gain experience. Everyday, I thought to myself, ‘How was I, a 24-year-old guy, unable to obtain work?’
I was fast losing hope again, I had no light at the end of the tunnel and it felt as if my tunnel was just getting deeper and darker. I was again struggling with a reason to live again. I started to buy edible plants and started a garden. I would spend all of my time out in my garden when I wasn’t applying for jobs. As I was in the middle of flicking aphids off my tomato plant that had 4 fruits growing on it, I had an epiphany. What if I could get a job gardening, or doing something outdoors out in nature? Something that’s therapeutic for me? I was mind-blown! I ran inside and started googling frantically trying to find anything that I could apply for with no experience. An ad for the Conservation Volunteers Australia’s (CVA) Green Army popped up and I applied straight away.
To my surprise I was called in for an interview. I walked in shaking, anxiety was full steam ahead! What if I stuffed up the only opportunity I’d been given in 10 years?
I made it through the interview and waited for a month to finally hear back that I had been given a spot on one of their teams. I was beyond stoked! Finally, I had my foot in a door!
I started work as a Green Army participant in the summer of ’17. Working alongside Parks Victoria (PV) we were given tasks like hand-weeding around re-vegetation, pulling out what seemed like kilometres of Gallenia, rubbish collection and sweeping paths.
I grew quite close to some of the PV guys, getting to know them, cracking jokes and having dances to old Aussie classics with them. Management welcomed us with open hearts and arms and even took on a fatherly role most of the time.
I remember one day when we went down to the Western Treatment Plant to our small sectioned-off site. It was here that my supervisor started to teach me about the orange bellied parrot, how critically endangered it was, the EVC (ecological vegetation class) that surrounded the site and that we had an opportunity to manage one of their nesting sites! I was over the moon.
This was a pivotal moment for me. Every day I woke up excited; what other cool stuff was I going to learn, see or do?? I could finally see a light at the end of my tunnel now and I was less and less anxious as the days went on. I grew more confident and was jamming my brain full of any and all new information thrown my way.
About 4 months into my Green Army journey my supervisor had organised for me to have a phone interview with a manager from an environmental management company that she had connections with. It was a Thursday afternoon and I was on my way to Echuca to visit my brother when I got the call. Hands shaking, feeling nauseous as anything and almost pooping my pants with anxiety I answered the phone. On the other end of the phone was the most laid back/welcoming voice I’d ever heard. Instantly my anxiety left, and I was ready to go! Sign me up! We chatted for a while about what I had done in the Green Army and if I needed any tickets to help out with them for a little while. She informed me that because of the training I had received while I was doing the Green Army I only needed to obtain a white card, everything else would be on the job training. Brilliant! “I’ll do that tonight!” I said in excitement. She had organised for me to be inducted into the company and meet the West crew the following Wednesday. She also informed me that it was probably only going to be 2-3 months of works over the planting season. I didn’t mind, I was just stoked that someone was willing to give me a chance! I finally felt like I could make something of myself, or at least this was the first step to starting something great. To say I was grateful is an understatement. Little did I know, that phone call would change my life for the better on so many levels.
Three months came and went, the leaves started to re-shoot, all the flowers started to come out and here I was still getting rostered on. I was working well with the team I had been put in and was picking things up pretty quick. Had I finally found my niche? Could I be this young and this lucky? It all seemed way too good to be true. I felt the happiest I had been in a long time, I felt like I finally had a purpose and a reason to live.
I could only bug my poor team leader with so many questions per day (the poor guy was more than happy to answer them all). So I decided to start looking at study. This is probably the first time I struggled in the industry. Understandably, most TAFE’s and universities offered full-time study (40hrs per week, 5 days per week) and part-time study (20hrs per weeks, 3 days per week), I called around everywhere to see if I could study online, attend night classes or even on weekends. No luck. I couldn’t afford to take 3 day off each week or afford the $15,000 that some places were asking for to study with them, it just wasn’t viable.
I was about to give up on my search for a place to study when I came across a TAFE – The Gordon. This TAFE was 1.5 hours away but would allow me to study 1 day per week and had the cheapest fees (they even offered payment plans – BONUS!!). The following month I had been in to visit the Enviro Tech Coordinator to sign up to the Certificate 3 Conservation & Land Management course they had to offer and started studying that month. To my surprise I was acing all of my subjects and top of my class – something that had never happened before.
Today, I’m still working at the same company and I’ve almost finished my certificate. Without these things I honestly don’t think I would be here today. It’s safe to say that conservation saved my life.
No matter how hard it is, no matter what you’re going through, just know you’re not alone and that you have the strength inside to come out the other side.
For more from Oliver, follow @de_leache on Instagram