“You only live once” (YOLO) is the mantra most often repeated by young Australians just prior to doing something that involves great risk. Ironically, it’s the fear of death and the excitement of defying it that propels many teens to perform life-threatening acts like train or car surfing: do this thing now because you only get one chance to live.

Street violence, experimenting with drugs and alcohol, impulsive dangerous activity and risky sexual behaviour all have links to the YOLO philosophy. However, the youth charity Kokoda Youth Foundation believes that this need for life-affirmation should never be mistaken for apathy and disregard, and that many teenagers actually want to do something significant and meaningful with their lives and for their community.

Research findings would tend to agree. UK based think-tank Demos found in one study that 80% of teenagers claimed to have stronger concerns about social issues than previous generations, with two-thirds of their teachers agreeing. In 2011, Queensland think-tank Left Right stated: “Young people are eager to find opportunities to give back to their communities through initiatives that are fun, exciting, meaningful, and result in a measurable positive impact.”

The Kokoda Youth Foundation runs a youth program that fulfils these criteria, and the increasing popularity of the program demonstrates that teens are more engaged than ever. “When teenagers apply to do the Kokoda Challenge Youth Program [KCYP], the one thing they all have in common is their desire for a stronger sense of purpose and direction,” said Doug Henderson OAM, who has sifted through several thousand applications and interviewed many candidates in the past ten years as founder and chairman of Kokoda Youth Foundation.

The 12-month KCYP demands a long-term commitment and strict standards of behaviour. The ‘Kokoda Kids’ (as the 15-17 year olds are affectionately called) find themselves trekking long mountain trails of a Sunday and in the gym of a weeknight, forging strong community relationships and volunteering at local organisations and charities. They have numerous opportunities to test their developing mental, physical and emotional fitness, including competing in the gruelling 96 km Kokoda Challenge and trekking the actual Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea.

Kokoda Youth Foundation argues that teenagers are not afraid of challenge and discipline and it is only in the absence of real direction that they seek the affirmation of YOLO activities. Promoting a strong values framework taken from the legacy of the Australian Diggers on the Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea during World War II, the KCYP challenges pre-set beliefs and encourages teens to push their limits. Within this environment they begin to develop a stronger sense of who they are and are not, communicating this to their peer group, family and community: I am courageous, I have what it takes, I am worthy and you should never take me lightly. Youth Services Manager for KYF Grant Summersfield said, “When they set and achieve their dreams and reach their full potential, they realise that they’re actually honoring themselves, their family, our community and the ANZAC diggers.”

While the KCYP embraces the enthusiasm of YOLO, it denies the YOLO position that life should be a series of reckless acts. “The way that YOLO has developed gives teens an inherently false understanding of life. You don’t live once. You live it every day and you only die once. So you have to make every day – every decision – count,” said Summersfield.

kokoda kids redefine yolo

Kokoda Kid Chelsea talks of the renewed direction that KCYP brought to her life: “Before my Kokoda Journey, I was feeling confused and indecisive… I started to learn new skills, to manage the many different events in my life at one time, as well as committing to something long-term. I learnt discipline and self-control at a time where I could have easily been peer pressured into breaking my commitment and losing balance in my social life… Life is precious and I have learnt to have an appreciation for it.”

Kokoda Kids come from every segment of society and the success of the KCYP provides strong evidence that the search for identity, meaning and purpose is universal among young people today. Henderson says, “There is no difference between those who are expected to fail and those who are expected to achieve when teenagers have the right support and opportunities. We provide these young people with life skills that most adults would relish – self-belief, value of perseverance, gratefulness and the confidence to conquer any hardships that come their way.”