Each year over 70,000 jubilant children play on the extensive sporting facilities at the Don Bosco Youth and Recreation Centre, St Marys. The popular birthday venue celebrated its own 25th anniversary on the last weekend of June.
The value of this free, safe and happy place for children, especially the disadvantaged, was recognised at the large anniversary celebrations attended by State and Church dignitaries including the Mayor of Penrith, John Thain, Bishop Bede Heather (former Bishop of Parramatta), Fr Peter Williams, Fr Bernard Graham SDB, Vice Provincial of the Salesians in Australia, Sr Edna-Mary MacDonald FMA, Provincial of the Salesian Sisters in Australia and Tanya Davies, Member for Mulgoa and the NSW Minister for Women, Mental Health and Ageing, representing the Premier Gladys Berejiklian.
“The idea is to provide a safe place for unprivileged kids,” Fr John Walenciej SDB, the Director of the Centre, said. “Instead of going around and looking for trouble, they can be here.”
During the anniversary celebrations, Fr John paid tribute to the dedicated volunteers, generous benefactors and visionary leaders who made the Don Bosco Centre’s success and ongoing operations possible. The centre is a joint initiative of the Salesians of Don Bosco, the Diocese of Parramatta and Penrith City Council. He also shared a challenging quotation from St John Bosco, that “if you don’t give money willingly to the young people in need, one day they will take it from your pockets themselves.”
While Fr John explains the centre to Catholic Outlook, dozens of overjoyed young people flip and jump on four gymnastic trampolines, shoot balls through the many basketball hoops, play billiards, table tennis, outdoor tennis, soccer and volleyball.
This experience of freedom and fun is deeply transformative for many of the children.
Michael Power is one person whose life was changed by the centre.
“If it wasn’t for Don Bosco and the staff, I wouldn’t be the man and father that I am today,” Michael told revelers at the centre.
He saw peers fall “on the wrong side of the tracks” but “Br Stan [Rosatto], Fr Peter [Kerin] and everyone back then always tried to us out of trouble and keep me positive as well.” He continues to live this philosophy.
“Fr Peter taught me how to do a backflip on ground and trampoline. I can’t do them on the ground anymore but trampolines are a different story,” he said cheekily.
The children come from a wide range of communities, including the Caucasian, Islander and Indigenous communities. In recent years, the children of refugees from Sudan have become one of the largest groups attending the centre. The centre is open to people of all faiths and none.
“The first thing with unhappy kids is to make them feel welcome and comfortable.”
“It’s the gospel of joy and the pedagogy of kindness,” Fr John said.
Br Thuy Nguyen SDB is a former refugee who works in the centre. He spent three years in a refugee camp in Malaysia.
“After school the Sudanese come in a big groups, especially on Friday,” Br Thuy said.
“I enjoy being someone who makes their lives a bit cheerful with sport.”
Sr Jenny Doudle FMA is co-director of the centre. “Don Bosco Youth Centre is a place where young people feel at home and that they belong,” she said.
Sr Faye Aboghazaleh FMA began her journey to joining the Salesians when she had “a midlife crisis in the Holy Land,” she joked. She has now been at St Marys for ten years.
“My personal mission is to continue to help young people and be there for them,” she says with clear passion.
Sr Faye values being spontaneously available for young people’s needs, such as quickly helping one young person find a holiday job and giving another a lift to a Grandparent’s funeral.
Sr Kim Nguyen FMA is also a new member of the Salesians and apart from discerning God’s will through prayer, she looked at the gifts God had given her, such as a strong desire to serve.
“I feel happy helping other people,” she said.
She also has a gift for craft that allows her to make artworks the children can enjoy.
The Catholic motivation behind the centre is subtle, the only traces being a few statues, images of St John Bosco and small crucifixes worn by the Salesians over their sportswear.
Br Jeff Miller SDB is the youngest Salesian in practical formation in Australia and has been at St Marys for 18 months. He attended a similar centre in Melbourne during his teens.
“Something important for people to know is most of the good work is not seen. We don’t explicitly evangelise the children.
“People might just think it’s a bunch of kids running around and jumping on trampolines.
“It’s not until they realise that people have given their whole lives to making themselves and the centre available to the young that they begin to appreciate its value.”