Child doctors put a smile on everyone’s face

  • Boy and girl school children in a medical school room
    Makenha Bryon and Eadie Cooper
  • Medical training multiple people in blue surgical gowns
    Calvary hospital
  • School children health check
  • Group of children with arm casts and nurses

While ministers wring their hands over the low school attendance of Indigenous children, low engagement and dispirited teachers, one program has children climbing walls to break in and learn and leaders excited about their work. These children are not bribed to be part of it, they are not coerced and there is no need for truancy officers chasing down absentees.  The kids come because they love what happens. The sessions deal with real life, and they are enjoyable.

This is The Malpa Project’s “Young Doctors for Life” programs and 9-11 year old Indigenous and non-Indigenous kids across four states can’t get enough. The community designed and led fifteen-week projects usually have fifteen children for one session each week for fifteen weeks. And one program saw thirty-nine kids turn up every afternoon for fifteen weeks.

Part of the key to success is that projects have Indigenous and non-Indigenous kids. This was done at the insistence of Elders and is “the best thing we ever did”, according to Malpa's Founding CEO, Don Palmer. This brings about genuine reconciliation amongst the Young Doctors and brings about social healing in the wider community and life-long friendships. “Indigenous-only programs often bring about division and resentment. Hardly a recipe for reconciliation,” he says.

The Malpa approach is based on the traditional Warlpiri/Pintupi way to good health where the healers, the Ngangkari, select and train children to the next generation of healers.

It’s all-hands-on learning. In one project the Young Doctors attended a hospital and did the rounds with the senior surgeon. Then they scrubbed-up and did a mock surgery in a working theatre under the surgeon’s watchful eye. And then they learned to remove skin cancer and suture the wound. “Unreal”, commented one of the children.

Every project is designed by the community and the Young Doctors learn about hygiene, nutrition, health literacy, environmental health and health leadership. In one location, graduating Young Doctors perform basic health checks on younger school mates. They visit hospitals and clinics, have visits from health practitioners, including paramedics with their ambulances. And they also learn some of the traditional ways from Knowledge Holders and Elders. The Young Doctors learn to be active health leaders who not only have taken charge of their own health destiny but help others.

There are currently 3,200 trained Young Doctors and around 1,000 more will be trained in 2024. With an alarming shortfall in health professionals across Australia, especially rural Australia, the Young Doctors have the chance to meet passionate role models in a wide range of health professions. They get excited and motivated about coming to school and dreaming about what their careers might be.

The Young Doctors are proud of what they do, and make their families and communities proud, as well. One Elder commented “I like that Malpa works with the clay and not the brick”.

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