Coach on Cherbourg deaths: ‘The whole town mourns’
THE Indigenous community of Cherbourg is dealing with strict ongoing lockdown conditions but, over the past month, suicide and mental health hardships have cast a bleak shadow over hopes for a return to 'normal'.
Cherbourg Boxing Group coach Jim Hawkins said this week that "we've been losing someone nearly every weekend".
"There's been so much suicide, especially among young Aboriginal men."
Some of the deaths, he said, included former Cherbourg locals now living elsewhere such as Brisbane.
Mr Hawkins, who usually runs his boxing training group at the Cherbourg Sports Complex with anywhere from one to 40 participants, said the gym was currently closed as the community remained fully locked down.
"They're not looking at changing that any time soon apparently. I don't know when they'll be able to reopen.
"We've been trying to do some training over the internet but many people don't have very good data so that's a challenge as well."
Also a mentor to his young students, Mr Hawkins said the recent deaths by suicide and the funerals held with limited numbers had been "heartbreaking".
"The whole town mourns.
"One was a boy I used to teach and who had a promising career in pro-bullriding, and he took his life recently."
He said many young people suffered from "literally a lack of hope and purpose".
"There's still a huge gap between Aboriginal people and westernised culture.
"Even with lockdown, most of the westernised culture is now getting some freedoms back but in the communities, they're not getting much freedom at all.
"They're getting into stealing cars and petrol sniffing - they're trying to find some excitement in their life, something to do and some way of dealing and coping with what's happening."
The mental health effects of lockdown, Mr Hawkins said, were evident in Cherbourg.
"It has affected me personally too, and helping others is one of the things that has pulled me through.
"Some of the deaths have been people who you wouldn't have been able to pick that they were feeling like that.
"For one young fella, it was one month before his 18th birthday. It's very sad."
Mr Hawkins said he was dedicated to always letting the young people know he was "there for them".
"If they're ever feeling like they can't do it any more, I'm always here. There's not much more I can do but just be there and be an ear to listen to them and a heart to care for them.
"I spend time on Facebook chatting to them just to try and lift their spirits."
Fighting, or boxing, he said, was a "big thing" for young Aboriginal people and it was important to provide them with a safe environment.
"Otherwise it happens in the streets.
"Boxing is their way to find hope and purpose and something to strive for."
Mr Hawkins said the training sessions were divided between a sparring lesson which was for people of any age to "give it a go", and an advanced session mostly for teenagers.
"It's great to see so much joy on their faces. They're having fun.
"From a young age they show such a unique talent in fighting - it's amazing."
He said fighting was a part of life in the communities, especially street fighting.
"It's always been a battle for everyday life so it's instilled in them from a very young age."
While Mr Hawkins is keen for the gym to reopen, he's aware of the importance of keeping COVID-19 out of Cherbourg.
"I don't want to see this virus get into the community.
"I'm committed to training again when we can. I've got no doubts about it happening."
Mr Hawkins also teaches champion boxer Pharrell Chapman who earlier this year was selected in the 2020 Boxing Australia Future Development squad, putting him on a trajectory towards becoming an Olympic boxer.
He said 16-year-old Pharrell had been training hard during lockdown "but it's definitely a challenge".
"I can't do any of the actual coaching with him.
"I think he's got the determination to pull through this and come out on top, but it's going to be a lot harder for him."
The Futures program prepares boxers for the 2020 Youth World Titles.
Pharrell, who only has two-and-a-half years of boxing experience, said at the time that he wanted to follow in the footsteps of legendary Cherbourg boxer, Jeffrey Dynevor.
"There have been a lot of good boxers out of Cherbourg over the years and I am hoping to follow the footsteps of Jeffrey Dynevor who won Gold in the 1962 Commonwealth Games," he said.