Headed down a dangerous and uncertain path, in his teenage years, Sean admits his life wasn’t exactly going where he wanted it to, he was missing lots of school and experimenting with drugs and alcohol.
The separation of parents had an immediate impact on the teen after his father left to work, and eventually settle abroad.
But it was a particularly tough year, Year 8 at school, which was the catalyst for his true downward spiral, and a time which has stuck with him forever.
“My eldest brother was involved in a serious car accident which I took on heavily, as right before the accident, he and I had a massive argument and I said a few things I could never take back,” Sean remembers.
“He and three friends were severely injured and had to be rushed to hospital, and later on my brother was charged with multiple offences.
“A couple of months later my mum had decided to go away with her girlfriends for a girl’s weekend and go horse riding, my mum wasn’t the most experienced rider but she gave it crack and unfortunately took a tumble and ended up breaking majority of her ribs and puncturing her lung and had to be put into an induced coma.
“Seeing my mum like that absolutely broke me and still to this day I can tell you exactly how the room was and what she looked like hooked up to all the machines.
“My mum was in an induced coma for one week in the ICU at the Alfred Hospital and every day after school my brother and I would travel up with our family friend who was taking care of us at the time from Geelong and sit with her, we couldn’t talk with her but just sit there and hope that she was okay.”
They didn’t know at the time, but Sean’s uncle had to make the decision on whether or not to turn the machines off as the doctors weren’t overly confident she would recover.
While still trying to go to school and live a “normal life” Sean says the uninvited return of his father did not help his situation.
His mother ended up coming back to the Geelong Hospital after three weeks in the ICU and spent 12 weeks in rehab down in Geelong.
“While recovering we were faced with my brother’s car accident charges and were forced to go in and out of court where, after two years, we finally were faced with the difficult conviction – my brother was sentenced to 16-months in Malmsbury Youth Detention Centre.”
Sean says the result broke the whole family, his brother was Vice School Captain and a respected member of the community.
“After all this happening I wasn’t quite sure on my place and started experimenting and soon going into a dark hole and started trying to feel something by experimenting with drugs and alcohol but also self-harming, ,” explains Sean.
“I felt alone and lost with no purpose and honestly didn’t believe I could put up with thing’s anymore.”
Sean first heard about the Kokoda Youth Program after his Vice Principal at the time, Mr. Reid, approached him in the yard and asked his to follow him to his office where he explained that he had been nominated for it.
After being accepted, Sean admits he was at first overwhelmed and shocked, but then saw it as an opportunity he had to grab with both hands.
The physical side of training wasn’t so much a difficult area for Sean, as he was playing lots of sport both in and out of school, however the mental side was a different story as he would always doubt himself – doubting he wouldn’t be able to complete the trek.
“The best part of the 20 weeks of training was building the connections with everyone who was participating,” Sean reflects.
“Every week we turned up, the group became closer and closer and started to bond together as a family and it was quite obvious to everyone that we were becoming a family.”
When it came time to leave for the trip, Sean says he was overcome with emotion.
“Being dropped at the police station by Mum I don’t think I have ever been so excited yet so scared in my life,” he says.
“I knew that the trek was going to push me mentally and physically however I knew that I was doing it with my second family and that I would hold onto these memoires for the rest of my life so I have to embrace every aspect of it.”
Sean says his relationships with the students and mentors developed greatly throughout the trek as participants grew a great amount of trust in one another after relying on each other in some shape or form.
Even though the mentors are adults, Sean says he found he was able to really talk and open up to them, just as if they were a best friend and the same age.
“The students over the course of the trek really connected together and bonded like a family we all helped each other physically and emotionally,” he says.
“Me personally, I believed I developed a stronger connection with all the mentors as I really opened up to them all and allowed them to guide me in the right direction – I still to this day stay in contact with most of the mentors.
“We are all assigned a mentor before we leave for the trek, mine was Michelle, the most beautiful, caring woman who helped me through thick and thin.
“Michelle unfortunately didn’t get to train with us a whole heap as she was based in Melbourne as a Federal Police Officer, however on the course of the trek Michelle became my second mum, she was there when I was on my emotional highs from the trek, but she was especially there when I was at my worst and stuck by me until she knew I was okay.
“I’m forever grateful for Michelle and all the mentors as we all built such an amazing bond and can rely on each other whenever.”
Sean says day one of the trip was nothing like he had ever experienced.
Flying over the mountains and tree tops of the jungle below was like something he would only read about in a book or see in a movie.
“No matter how ready you think you are, you aren’t,” he says bluntly.
“You soon realise how extraordinary this place really is – the first few hours of hiking are the worst in the whole trek, 100 per cent humidity, 20-30 degrees and adjusting to carrying your bag with 15-20 kilograms isn’t an easy task.
“While the first kilometer or two is fairly flat, you soon come to a very large mountain that isn’t moving out of your way, so the only thing to do is to climb up and for the next few hours you are climbing and climbing.
“The first few hours of the trek just take a while to adjust to all the conditions and terrain, however if you have some company and chat away – it makes it a lot easier than walking in silence.”
While there’s many highlights to count, Sean says the best part for him was experiencing and connecting with local life and culture.
“The people from all the villages were all so happy and full of joy and didn’t seem to worry about anything, they took each day by day and were thankful for everything they had,” he says.
“One of the villages had a sports carnival where all surrounding villages come together and play a bit of a round-robin soccer and rugby one day of the year.
“Spending the day with all the youths and children from the villages playing these sports and getting to know them was probably my favorite highlight as they were all so inclusive and allowed us to join in and be a part of their culture.”
While there were many highs, there were also great challenges, Sean’s biggest struggle came when he became so unwell that he needed medical treatment.
“I was so determined that I was going to complete the trek on my own and carry my bag the whole way that I pushed myself to far,” he recalls.
“I was dehydrated from the day before at the sports carnival that when coming down one of the mountains I was nearly tripping over my own feet and when Andy, George and the porters stopped me, assessed me and then told me that I was going to need to get a bag of IV put into me and they will carry my bag that part broke me the most.
“I know it might not sound so bad but for me I was so determined to do this on my own and to do it not just for myself but for my family that it really hurt me.
“They all reassured me and calmed me down and eventually I moved on from it but at the time trying to move past it was really hard for me.”
The feeling of completion was one of overwhelming joy however and a moment Sean will never forget.
“I was upset and absolutely thrilled all at the same time,” he says.
“I couldn’t believe I had actually walked the Kokoda trek and completed it.
“When I walked through those arches I felt like I had made people proud and I was proud of myself.
“Walking through those arches was the end of the Kokoda trek, but the beginning of a new Sean.”
Visiting the War Cemetery was another unforgettable moment for Sean, who says it gave him perspective into how big the war really was and how difficult the times back then really were.
“It really brought home the sacrifice our ANZACS made, seeing all those graves and knowing that I had walked where some of those people had died and fought for our country and freedom really touched me,” he says.
“It helped me open my eyes and realise how lucky I really am to have the things I do and live the life I do.”
Coming home was actually quite hard for Sean, he says people would think after being away from your family for a week and a half and hiking and camping you would be thrilled to come home, but for him it was the opposite.
“I had made so many great connections with the porters and fell in love with the whole community and all the villages that we went through that I just wanted to stay.
“Of course I missed my family and friends and was so excited to show them everything and tell them all the stories but I felt an urge to stay so I could experience more and help them in any way shape or form.”
The biggest change for Sean, once it all finished, was his mindset.
He says his perspective on absolutely everything had changed, from the way he treated people, to the way he viewed life, to enjoying the smaller things and to taking pride in himself.
“One memory that will always stick in my head from Kokoda is that the children absolutely loved bubbles, it may sound a bit silly but for them they didn’t have anything and just the littlest things can make someone happy so its taught me to appreciate the little things and enjoy what we have because we are very lucky to be born where we are,” he says.
“Kokoda has helped me deal with other life challenges by making me realise that things do get better, they may be negative now and not look like it’s going to change but it can, situations get harder before they get better and if you put your mind to it you can change it.
“One foot in front of the other.
“It’s made me realise that if I set my mind to something I can achieve it and I have proven that to my family and friends.”
Sean currently works full-time as a labourer – school was never his happy place and it took him a lot to complete Year 12, but he is still discovering more and more about where he wants to be.
“I’m not exactly sure on what my dream job looks like,” he says.
“But I’m slowly figuring out and narrowing down my choices by reading into courses and job descriptions.”
The Geelong Kokoda Youth Program gave Sean not only invaluable life skills, but he also formed great personal connections, a support network he can call on, and not just when he needs.
“The people in the program become your second family you can go to them with any problem at any time and no matter what they are going to be there for you and likewise,” he says.
“You spend six months training and preparing for the trek together, breathing and sweating on top of each other, sometimes crying on each other’s shoulders but you build this connection with them that is indescribable, they are your family and everyone is there to help you.
“I can’t thank the program and people enough for what they have done for me and even now still, I stay in contact with them, we may not talk everyday but you know that they are only a message away and always will be.”