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Bernie Kelly: Know Fear

Sunday, 1 Jun 2008

“What would you do if you knew you could not fail?” A loaded question to ask someone over breakfast, but ask they did. For Bernie Kelly, it was just the catalyst he needed to fulfil his dream of building a ‘University of Leadership’ for young Australians.

“Every child deserves the right to leave school knowing that they can make a difference. They have a right to know they possess enormous potential to lead a meaningful life, which makes the world they touch a better place,” said Bernie with quiet determination.

While not a university of bricks and mortar, Bernie has developed the not-for-profit Australian Youth Development Association (AYDA, formerly known as ADYP), which boasts over 10,000 participants a year.

Teaching life skills to young people, Bernie’s team delivers leadership and self-esteem programs from upper primary through to secondary school and tertiary education.

“Our mission is to positively impact the esteem, worth and value of every child with whom we interact. We do this by supplying inspirational experiences that are fun and engaging. Students just love it.”

Getting skilled

“Our children are under attack. Reality television, slick-selling glossy magazines and media portrayal of the ‘successful good-looker’ mean that our kids are chasing an image that their natural body shape and their emotional capabilities just can’t match”.

“Add to this the arrival of communication tools such as MSN, Facebook, and texting, means that our young people are living their problems 24/7”.  Bernie believes it is little wonder that our youth are struggling.

“Even at schools, we place so much pressure on the final score. Kids are leaving school thinking it’s the be all and end all. The reality of it is, is that the character of who you are, is likely to sell your value to an employer as much as your school examination results. And in most cases, where you end up in life, and what you actually do, is very little to do with the score you get.”

It is this kind of philosophy that is reaching Australian schools everywhere, and teaching school-leavers that while study is important, there is life beyond the classroom.

“We need to be doing a lot more things to make sure that our children are seeing themselves positively and believing in their capacity to do things which benefit self, their friends, and community. AYDA is a solution to that.”
The programs cater to a student’s age and grade, and include Primary Power (grade 7), the Middle School Conference (grade 9), and the Australian Student Leadership Conference in grade 12. But it doesn’t stop there. After careful consideration, worthy ‘Conference Graduates’ are selected to lead AYDA Programs and are even contracted to co-deliver school programs with AYDA employees. All of Bernie’s current full-time staff once sat in his audience as enthusiastic students.

Bernie has also garnered a sense of international responsibility amongst the leaders, and provides powerful experiences in Africa and India, to work with orphanages, climb Mount Kilimanjaro and develop a sense of culture and worldliness.

The skills they learn from the conferences vary from public speaking confidence, to team management skills and group skills.

“The main thing they take away from it is they see themselves as a person of worth. They see themselves worthy to make a difference. They see themselves as a leader.”

Know fear

One of the phrases Bernie has printed on the back of his team’s t-shirt is “Know Fear.”
“A lot of people see that and don’t really know what it means. What it means is know it, don’t be afraid of it. Accept it. Fear and anxiety and doubt is part of our every day living. It’s how you cope with that fear that is the challenge. Some people learn to feel the fear and attack. Others run away. The question we’re asking the kids is who are you? And when you feel anxiety and doubt about yourself, how are you responding?”
Bernie’s message is loud and clear; get involved and do something with your life, whether it is getting a job, following a passion or creating something new and exciting.
“To create change and shift in oneself, you must do something. Change doesn’t come from standing still. What AYDA does is inspire doing. It creates ‘doers’.”

A finalist in Toast Master’s World Championship of Public Speaking in the 80s, Bernie realised that “the concept of coaching others was a treasured role. The privilege of influencing others while learning about self was a very meaningful existence”. Before starting AYDA, he spent 10 years in the corporate sector, coaching adults and businesses. However, the vision has always been on youth whose minds, hearts and souls are pliable and so much more open to seeing things differently.

“People say to me, what work do you do? I only spend 30% of my time at work, because the other 70% is actually an extension of me. I’m living the best of me.”

And it seems the experiences he gives other people mean more than he could have ever imagined.

“I remember Bryan C who came back year after year to lead a conference. I said to him once, ‘we love having you back mate, but for goodness sake you’re 27 years of age, you’ve been doing this for 10 years. Why ?’ ‘Bernie,’ he says, ‘once a year this experience renews my faith in humanity. I see humanity in the best possible ways when I come back, and I love leading these young people on this amazing journey.’”

For some, Bernie Kelly’s leadership program has been a point of strength and guidance. For Matt Kershaw and Thomas Callachor, leadership has become a way of life, and while their involvement in AYDA has impacted their lives in different ways, it has inspired them both to succeed. Tom is greatly involved with Price Waterhouse Coopers Australia, and at the age of 25, has used his leadership skills to climb the corporate ladder. On the other hand, Matt, who was on death’s door two years ago with a life threatening tumour attached to his spine, had a lot of support from the AYDA team, and through determination and treatment, survived his illness. He now inspires youth all around Australia and is committed to helping them realise their potential.

4 ways to ‘know fear’ and create an awesome life:

  • Listen and respond to your instinct – your instinct is your inner message culminating from all past experiences. It is a very wise voice. Listen and respond to it!
  • Be a doer – ‘Analysis breeds Paralysis’ – don’t stand still and wonder – do things – try new things.
  • Dwell on what is good about you and the world – not the pimple on your face or the excess weight you carry – see and acknowledge the good inside your self, because there is a lot of it!
  •  Be loathe to judge. Seek to accept and don’t expect human beings and friends to be perfect. The human race is and always has been imperfect. Expect unusual ‘imperfect’ responses from those around you. Embrace the imperfection of humanity. Don’t judge it

For more information on AYDA or Bernie Kelly visit his site:


Pictured top: Bernie and the ADYA team, second: in a conference, third: leaders amongst school group, fourth: Bernie Kelly and his daughter, fifth: away in India

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