Recognising the critical importance of Rites of Passage in lives of our teenagers – revisiting the start of the STEP journey.

ROP tee pee

Every traditional society in the world recognise they need to create a coming of age Rite of Passage ceremony.  Belgian anthropologist Arnold van Gennep coined the term Rite of Passage(ROP) in the early 1900’s – community- created and community directed experiences that transmit cultural values and knowledge to an individual(s). The ROP process not only guide’s the individual’s transition to a new status, but, equally important, it created public events that celebrated the transition and reaffirmed these community values, which inform and guide expectations for behaviours essential to the groups survival. 

In February 2017, I attended an incredible Global Rites Of Passage Leadership Training  in the hills of Mullumbimby, NSW ( yup, the sunrise from that tee pee was  magical).   Led by the talented Dr Arne Rubenstein, I found it was the missing piece in a puzzle I had been working on in my desire to help connect youth and the Elderly. Applying the thinking around the stages of Rites of Passage gave me a critical framework to complete the design of the intergenerational story sharing program I was working on.

Whilst for thousands of years, Rites of Passage events may have involved the killing of a lion, or walking over hot coals to prove the move into manhood, what is crucial today (as we have moved on from needing to hunt for our food)  is the acknowledgment of social and moral maturing as a result of challenging encounters. I realised that for Teens today, this encounter could be entering an Aged Care environment and facing the ‘challenge‘ of an environment where there is no escape from the concepts such as ageing, immobility, dementia and even death.

In his TedX Talk below, Arne speaks of the concerning decline in life satisfaction graph that begins in the early teen years and troughs around age 16 that led him from practising as a GP to find out why ( watch his talk below if you want to know also!)

His subsequent study of ROP ceremonies around the world found that they always;

  • Involved story sharing, facing a challenge &  an acknowledgment of their ‘spirit’
  • Marked shift from ‘child’ psychology (” I am the centre of the universe. It’s all about me ! I don’t take responsibility ” ) to ‘healthy adult’ psychology
  • Led to a deep and profound sense of belonging in their community, they learnt the history of their community and knew they were part of something bigger than them.

TedX -2013 Arne Rubenstein

Screen Shot 2017-08-15 at 11.21.22 am

When I saw this graph, I was as worried as Arne.

I developed STEP (Seniors and Teens Empathy Program) as one of the possible small solutions ( of many that will be needed in an wholistic approach to community mental health and wellbeing) to help halt that steep decline youth appear to be on,  a program that aims to nourish and develop the souls of adolescents on their path to find purpose and meaning through a vision of life that is bigger than self.

STEP launched as an initiative between Bupa Aged Care, Kids Giving Back and Heart & Soul Story on October 10, 2017 (World Mental Health Day) and has been running with teens and aged care residents ( albeit due to the chaos of COVID changing our worlds in 2020, now as a virtual program). You can read more about the thinking behind this initiative here Intergenerational Programs .

The development of purpose is intricately woven with the development of identity – the biggest problem growing up is not actually stress, it’s meaninglessness

Bill Damon, Stanford Lead Researcher Purpose & Adolescents

Using nature to show the important work we need to connect our young and old, share their stories and this be recognised by their community to ensure the ripple effect of the healing power of this story sharing is widened. This was an exercise I did as part of Dr Arne Rubenstein’s Rite of Passage Leadership training. It represented my wish to bridge the gap between young and old by bringing them together, the rocks on the side represented the challenges I thought I may come up against ( I didn’t know the half of it!) and the leaves in front represented the witness of the coming together of these two generations by their family and community, and the beneficial ripple effect this would have also on them.

What’s been happening at Heart and Soul Story?

On June 7th, Heart and Soul Story’s Founder, Samantha Heron, was invited to speak on intergenerational connection at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney for Awesome Sauce, a special Vivid Sydney event with partners The Awesome Foundation and VibeWire.

Sam recounted stories of connection from STEP – the Seniors and Teens Empathy Program she has been running with The Bowen College Maroubra and Elders at Bupa Aged Care Maroubra.

In June, STEP kicked off a trial for students from International Grammar School and residents at Opal Aged Care in Annandale. Youth off the Streets The Bowen College have their spring program underway at Bupa Maroubra over August/ September. To keep posted on this program and more from Heart and Soul Story, follow along on instagram (by clicking on one of the pictures top right of this page).

“Our students are already showing empathy and are learning from experiences from the past”

Screen Shot 2018-06-21 at 10.19.02 am.pngWith one final week of our 8 weeks of STEP coming up next week, it was time to get some feedback from the @youthoffthestreets Bowen College School Manager on what she has enjoyed about the program…

“Watching the young people take the time and having patience with the Bupa residents …. seeing rapport building up more and more each session between the students and residents.”

” Our students are already showing empathy and are learning from experiences from the past.”

“We really value this program. It is worthwhile, community spirited and builds empathy.”

 Bringing community back together like this is as much about educating our young people’s hearts as well as their minds.

#seniorsandteensempathyprogram #intergenerationalprogram #intergenerationalprograms #stories4connection #youthoffthestreets #heartandsoulstory #bupaagedcare #bringingcommunitybacktogether

“Music gives a soul to the universe… and life to everything.” 

week 6 b

Around 2,500 years ago, Plato summed up the power of music up perfectly when he said

“Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.”

The power of music to connect was seen is spades as laughter, tears and plenty of toe-tapping was shared by students and their Elder buddies during yesterday’s session of STEP (Senior and Teens Empathy Program).

A Spotify playlist of songs from yesteryear and today provided the perfect conversation starter and brought the generations closer as they teamed up in two groups for a ‘fierce’ competition to guess songs.

In a  2013 review of the research on music, Stefan Koelsch, music psychologist at the Freie University Berlin, described several mechanisms through which music impacts our ability to connect with one another—by impacting brain circuits involved in empathy, trust, and cooperation—perhaps explaining how it has survived in every culture of the world. ( Jill Suttie, Four ways Music Strengthens Social Bonds)

Music gives us an oxytocin boost … Oxytocin is a neuropeptide affiliated with breast-feeding and sexual contact, and is known to play an important role in increasing bonding and trust between people. Now researchers are discovering that music may affect oxytocin levels in the body.

Music is included as part of the design of STEP sessions as deliberate means of empathy building. The power of the love of music helping highlight another example of an equaliser between generations.

#seniorsandteensempathyprogram #intergenerationalprogram #YouthofftheStreets #BupaAgedCare#intergenerationalprograms #heartandsoulstory #stories4connection  #music4life #musicconnectspeople


“I don’t think she has heard a story like mine before… I knew I had a heart reaction”


So great to see both the students from Youth off the Streets and their Elders enjoying their time together so much during the STEP.

Unfortunately, last week the YOTS students had a clash of programs, so missed their visit to Bupa Maroubra … but no fear .. with the wonders of modern technology, the hip and happening septuagenarians and octogenarians ( phew that’s a mouthful) managed to record these lovely messages for their teen buddies.

John, born in Greece in 1933, is one of the residents at Bupa Maroubra participating in STEP (Seniors and Teens Empathy Program).  He is loving how polite and interesting and the teen he has been partnered with is.

” I like how intelligent she is, it’s very nice to talk to her and

I like the students learning about our lives”.

 John was asked what he’d rate the ‘life conversation’ sessions he’s had so far with the teens from 1 – 10 … he gave it a 10.5!

When Judy, aged 71, was asked what she is getting out of the Seniors and Teens Empathy Program thus far she replied

I don’t think she has heard a story like mine before… I didn’t want to see her cry, but I knew I had a heart reaction … I can touch someone else’s life”.

The students have described one of their favourite things about their sessions being that

 We get to see that they are very much just like us”. 

Everyone has a story that can touch another’s life in some way.

We just need to make the time and space to listen.


“We do not learn only from experience … we learn from reflecting on experience”


Screen Shot 2018-05-29 at 3.53.11 pm

“We do not learn only from experience … We learn from reflecting on experience.”
John Dewey was a philosopher, psychologist and educational reformer who believed humans learn through a “hands on” experiential approach.
In his thought-provoking article, Patrick Cole reminds us of five brilliant insights Dewey proposed over a century ago that are more than relevant today…
“Schools, according to Dewey, are not just places where we learn facts and numbers, but also places where we learn how to live.
In other words, the point is not just to learn a certain set of skills (though that helps as well) but rather to realize one’s full potential, and use what you’ve learned for the greater good.
How did we lose sight of this?”
#seniorsandteensempathyprogram #intergenerationalprograms #intergenerationalprogram #bringingcommunitybacktogether #stories4connection
🙏Jack Finnigan @jackofallstreets ( Unsplash for the wonderful pic)