Empowering tweens and teens through the KYUP! Project

You’re stronger than you think.

Recently I had the absolute pleasure of interviewing Mel Thomas, founder of the KYUP! Project. Mum to two tween girls, a black-belt martial artist, media commentator, speaker, writer and “leader of a revolution to end the cycle of violence against women and children.” 

The KYUP! Project (pronounced “KEY-UP” – named after a warrior power shout) is an Australian foundation that works in schools, universities and the community. Bringing powerful, actionable workshops to tweens and teens alike; empowering them to walk with strength through teaching self-protection techniques, safety skills and concepts like self-worth.

KYUP! are champions of a violence free future, and doing wonderful things throughout the country. It’s a beautiful concept, and one that takes strength and ingenuity to implement. KYUP! truly are one of Australia’s most amazing resources for schools – leading the way in breaking the cycle of violence and growing the next generation of strong, capable Australian women.

I talk to teens about intuition and the power of the voice, not only to shout in self-protection, but to take a stand and speak up for themselves and each other.

We are so thankful to have the founder, Mel, speak with us. Be prepared for some incredibly shocking stats… though thankfully, KYUP! are working to change all of that.

MEL, WE ABSOLUTELY LOVE THE KYUP! PROJECT – WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO START THIS ORGANISATION?

I grew up at a time in the 80’s when we didn’t have domestic violence campaigns. I convinced myself I wasn’t a victim of domestic violence, that was my mother; I wasn’t a victim of street violence, I was in the wrong place at the wrong time; and when it came to my relationships, I should have known better than ‘to set my boyfriend off’.

20 years later and not much has changed. Every day young women repeat words full of self-loathing and acceptance in a bid to make sense of the violence they experience.

40% of women have experienced violence since the age of 15. Intimate partner violence is the leading cause of preventable death for girls aged 15, to women aged 44.

As a society, we should be asking, “How did this happen?”. Men everywhere should be gathering and asking, “What are we doing wrong?”. But instead, it’s the women. The girls. The survivors, still asking the same wrong question I did for over 20 years, “What did I do wrong?”.

My army of soldiers don’t have guns. They wear school uniforms and the battlefield is mostly in their relationships, and minds.

I was the victim of a violent group assault in 1992 that made national headlines. I am also a survivor of childhood domestic violence, and intimate partner violence in my early relationships.

In 2013 I won a scholarship with the Layne Beachley Foundation because I had an idea: what if instead of feeling embarrassed and ashamed of my personal story of domestic violence and ‘poor choices’ as a young woman, I owned it?

What if I could take my feminine perspective and 20 years of specialist self-defence training and create something that would end the cycle of violence?

With that resolve, I founded the KYUP! Project in 2013 with a series of self-worth and self-defence workshops. I teach mostly girls and women practical life skills, which I believe are as valuable as learning to drive and water safety. Empowering young people, especially young girls to deal with a situation that doesn’t feel right, to know how to act, to shout out for themselves and each other… raising up an army of young people who refuse to be ethical bystanders.

My attention is also on boys and men in a hope to inspire them to the same resolve.

40% of women have experienced violence since the age of 15. Intimate partner violence is the leading cause of preventable death for girls aged 15 to women aged 44.

Mel Thomas, CEO & Founder of KYUP! Project

WHAT KIND OF PROGRAMMES DOES KYUP! OFFER?

KYUP! moves beyond good intentions and awareness campaigns into strong-hearted action. Empowering young people to understand their bodies crisis response mechanisms and giving them the tools to deal with past violence.

I talk to teens about intuition and the power of the voice, not only to shout in self-protection but to take a stand and speak up for themselves and each other.

Students break through wooden SMAI martial arts boards. It’s an amazing experience to be part of, when a child discovers they are stronger than they think. KYUP! equips kids with scripts, strategies and role play to powerfully deal with a situation that doesn’t feel right.

I teach mostly girls and women practical life skills which I believe are as valuable as learning to drive and water safety.

I am proud to deliver proven violence prevention education that influences choices and empowers people in schools, universities and businesses. 

KYUP! workshops are based on more than 20 years of specialist self-defence training in Hapkido and in collaboration with leading experts in psychology. Since 2013 I have collaborated with educators and experts in psychology, sport, wellbeing and research. 

WHAT DO YOU THINK ARE SOME OF THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES FACING GIRLS IN TODAY’S SOCIETY?

Self-harm is confronting. It’s a frightening cry for help and I get fired up because we all have a lot of work to do as a community and as parents, carers and educators, to better understand this damaging, secretive behaviour. 

Poverty is a huge issue and it’s not just in ‘poor ghetto’ areas. Poverty is more obvious in regional and remote schools, but I have met plenty of beautiful kids in picturesque local schools with heart-breaking stories of parents doing their best to make ends meet and keep the lights on.

I’ve just come back from a trip to the Kimberley and was deeply saddened to see many kids suffering without basic health services. Kids too hungry to focus and so tired they can’t sleep because they’re wrestling with complex adult issues.

How does KYUP! cater to girls who maybe aren’t so confident to begin with?

KYUP! Project is a step-by-step journey to boost self-esteem. No girl gets left behind! Size, age and fitness levels don’t matter. We create a judgement free space for the girls to shout at the top of their voice and take up more space.

We boost confidence with power poses and practice special breathing techniques to strengthen our core.

The girls enjoy bonding with other girls in their year and testing their grit and physical strength. 

EVEN THOUGH KYUP! WAS ORIGINALLY CREATED FOR GIRLS, WE LOVE THE WORK YOU HAVE STARTED TO DO WITH BOYS AS WELL. CAN YOU TELL US A LITTLE BIT MORE ABOUT THAT?

I wanted to find a way to empower boys in their relationships and ultimately reduce domestic violence.

I believe every girl has the right to grow up free from violence. I believe every boy plays a part in making that a reality.

At the same time, the last thing I want is for boys to feel like they are the problem when they are just as much at risk of men’s violence and domestic violence as girls. KYUP! Is an opportunity for boys to express themselves in a judgement free space with tools to boost their confidence and better understand the issues that impact girls.

One of the first programs I presented was for Kings Cross Police and a group of disadvantaged teens in Woolloomooloo.                                                                      

On day one, I launched into the program with 1000 percent enthusiasm in a bid to lift the tension in the room. The kids were doubled over fidgeting and ‘the cops’ were lined up against the wall, not meaning to, but looking super intimidating. I was setting the kids up for a demo when this skinny little 15 year old boy cuts me off and says, ‘I’m not doing it’.

The boy had cause to doubt himself with serious welfare issues: his father was an addict, he had attempted suicide a few times and he had just started smoking crystal meth, and pretty much dropped out of school.                                                                             

I said to him, “Not only do I believe you can do this, I believe you will be so good you will be able to demonstrate for the whole class!”

Maybe it was the first time someone believed in him, or maybe it was the first time he had to step up, but eight weeks later not only did he demonstrate everything he had learned in front of the whole class, but we invited 20 uniformed Police and opened up the demonstration to the local community. When I last saw him he had joined a local martial arts club, stopped taking drugs and had enquired about joining the Police force.

I believe every girl has the right to grow up free from violence. I believe every boy plays a part in making that a reality. I accept the challenge as a real-life role model who has experienced violence first hand to help young women claim their right to be safe, believe in their own strength, and truly value their emotional, physical and mental wellbeing.

I often say to my students, “You’ll fight as hard for yourself as you believe you’re worth.  Make sure you know how much you’re worth.”

YOUR WORKSHOPS LOOK SO FUN! HOW DID YOU TAKE A SERIOUS SUBJECT AND TURN IT INTO SOMETHING SO POSITIVE AND EXCITING?

My secret to success with kids… value their time.

I have waaaaay more impact when I backup a relatable story with practical, hands on life skills. If someone tried to give me a list of stuff I should and shouldn’t do as a teen I wouldn’t have cared less.

It’s a hard-earned truth – teens have a finely tuned BS radar. So I keep it real and value their time.

Every minute I have with the kids is about them and an opportunity to pay forward all the skills I have learned to be safe and confident.

And besides all that, what’s not to love about a chance to bust out your inner ninja warrior princess?!

CAN YOU TELL US HOW YOUR MARTIAL ARTS BACKGROUND INFLUENCES THE PROGRAMME?

The principles of martial arts and my personal values are at the heart of KYUP! Project. I wanted to create the martial arts journey for people who may never have an opportunity or means to train for many years. Accountability, respect for yourself and others, compassion and courage are the foundation for everything we do at KYUP! Project. 

WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE GIRLS WALKING AWAY FROM A KYUP! COURSE TO FEEL?

We ask the kids how they feel after KYUP! and they tell us they feel empowered, confident, strong and brave. Personally, my hope is the girls feel they have a choice in a situation that doesn’t feel right. In life I want them to back themselves, take up more space, support each other and claim their right to live free of violence and never let it go.

Lastly, we wanted to ask Mel for tips for parents at home. 

WHAT ARE SOME ACTIONS PARENTS AT HOME CAN TAKE TO HELP EMPOWER THEIR KIDS TO CHAMPION THEIR OWN WELLBEING?

1. Be clear on your personal values and share from personal experience. 

2. Not every mistake is a teachable moment. I meet kids under enormous pressure to walk an invisible tightrope of expectation in every area of their lives. Sometimes kids mess up and they just want help. 

3. We have a safety word/emoji in our family. My daughters know that if they text or say ‘bananas’ that’s my cue to pick them up at any place and any time. Safety first, questions and consequences later. 

4. Domestic violence, porn, consent are issues that impact our youth. My tip is, I get it. It’s not easy, I am a mum and I have concerns about introducing adult concepts. When it comes to the tough uncomfortable topics like DV, porn and consent try asking kids ‘what do you already know?’ This is a strategy that sets you up for trust without the risk of bringing up adult concepts your kids may not be ready for yet. I recently asked my daughter about a conflict she was having at school by empathising and sharing the G rated version of a time I had a fight with my best friend. She felt comfortable to share her experience. Kids naturally look for authenticity and openness.

You can see why we love Mel and KYUP! so much here at Somewhere Between. Her passion and dedication for empowering the next generation is positively captivating. She truly is leading a revolution to end the cycle of violence against women and children, and we support her all the way. She delivers proven violence prevention education that influences choices of the next generation, and does so with heart and authenticity. KYUP! is a programme we respect, led by a woman we admire. For more information about the KYUP! Project or information about school workshops visit the KYUP! website.

Charmaine Chung
Charmaine Chung

Charmaine Chung is one half of the lady boss team behind Somewhere Between, a resource for super mamas everywhere raising kids in the feisty pre-teen and early teen years. Beginning her career in retail fashion, before moving onto the music industry, working for major record labels, Charmaine eventually moved from Sydney to Laos to follow her dreams of starting a family. Four kids and 14 years later, she’s back in Canberra where motherhood has won her over, leading her to develop Somewhere Between - for mums just like her - raising kids who are navigating that space between their childhood and teenage years.

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