Youth united

By Muriel Cooper Photos Yanni

Twenty years ago, Maree Strong had a vision of how she wanted to run outreach groups for children and young adults, ‘I was shy, so I told other people about it, but no one listened, says Maree with a chuckle, ‘so I had to do it myself.’

Maree’s five children attended youth groups, but Maree’s vision, although spiritually based, was also about more – learning life skills like communicating, getting along with one another, and focusing on what they had, rather than what they didn’t have. ‘My aim was to give them a lifeline for the future,’ she says. Although not overtly religious, spiritual practices like reflection and gratitude have been preserved.

Now, twenty years on, Maree’s youth group ‘Youth United’, based at the Uniting Church in Hastings, is an integral part of the Western Port community.

‘The first night, I got eight children; after that, it just blossomed. I could not have visualised where it was going to go. It started with one group, then went to two, and kept going.’

Maree’s groups are not just about spirituality and learning life skills, they’re about having fun, like shaving cream surfing. Money is always tight, so when the conditions are right, a tarpaulin is put down and covered with shaving cream, and bubble bath soap for everyone to surf along, an activity Maree hopes to reintroduce now that Covid restrictions have eased. Karaoke is another popular activity.

Meetings begin with craft (Maree strongly believes in creative activities), and then there’s gratitude and reflection. ‘And food,’ Maree says. ‘There’s got to be food.’ Meetings end with Milo and a game, ‘Usually keeping something off me,’ she says with a laugh. Life isn’t always fun, though; ‘There’s always trauma and sorrow in life,’ she says. During reflection, the participants listen to and support one another.

Maree believes one of the most important life lessons is learning to believe in yourself. ‘Sometimes kids look down on themselves. If you don’t like yourself, then you can’t move forward,’ she says. So, what’s her secret? Maree says being consistent, having a gratitude circle and developing self-confidence and self-trust. showing kids that the trust they put in her, they can put in themselves.

Maree and the participants also go out into the community. Before Christmas, they potted plants and gave them out as small acts of kindness, and a group visited the residents and staff at The Bays Nursing Home, dispensing gifts, and cheer. ‘It changed them quite a bit,’ says Maree, ‘and they enjoyed it so much they’re talking about doing it again.’

Another activity Maree hopes will return is ‘Carols by Afternoon Light’ at Christmas, which Maree organised just before the pandemic. The children and young adults wrote a play, and other faiths joined in an ecumenical performance followed by a barbeque that highlighted the importance of community.

One activity held every year without fail is that Maree invites the children and young adults to her home for a meal.

No one is more aware than Maree of the effect Covid has had on children and young adults. ‘So many of them are anxious and shy now,’ she says. ‘My focus for them is on hope; sadly not such a big thing in their lives these days. You need to be part of something.’

Maree includes parents, and participants must have a parent’s permission to attend. She runs a drop-in group on Fridays for parents and children and has even organised a singles group for parents without partners. Money, craft items, and food are donated so that the activities can be free of charge.

Maree’s efforts were rewarded recently when she became reacquainted with one of the participants who is now twenty. She spoke glowingly about her time with Maree and said, ‘For me, it’s just family.’

Maree acknowledges the assistance she’s had along the way. ‘Over the years, people have helped, supported, and trusted me,’ she said. ‘It’s made such a difference. For me, it’s all about community.’

The best way for children and young adults to become involved is to turn up at one of Youth United’s meetings. They are:

Mondays from 6.30PM grades four to nine.

Every second Tuesday at 6.30PM is for those children who like a quiet group.

Wednesday nights at 6.30PM is the main group meeting.

Sunday nights are for years ten and up.

Friday afternoons are a drop in time for both parents and children

For more information, call Maree on 0424 249 601

Donations are always welcome. The best way to donate is to drop off your donation at one of the meetings. Financial donations dedicated to Youth United can also be made to the Uniting Church:

Rev. Nigel McBrien

0456 298 267


PO Box 25 Hastings Vic 3915

Peninsula Essence – April 2023