Meet the man behind the Kokoda Challenge

2019 marks the fifteenth year of the Kokoda Challenge, a brutal 96km Gold Coast hinterland trek taken on each year by hundreds of teams of four over 39 hours, with all proceeds raised going to support the Kokoda Youth Foundation (KYF).

Established in 2004, the KYF supports Australians, particularly young Australians, by inspiring them to do extraordinary things. Through hiking endurance events, youth programs and an outdoor education camp, they challenge beliefs, allow limits and abilities to be explored, and provide opportunities for growth. KYF founder Doug Henderson explains that the idea for the Foundation came about after he attended an RSL conference and learned about the history of the Kokoda trail and its significance in Australian military history.

“I felt shame that I didn’t know the story, because it’s such an incredible story of amazing human beings who went up there and saved us from invasion,” he tells us. “Around the same time there was a lot of media coverage around the supposed ‘horrible kids’ being brought up these days – I don’t subscribe to that – but some kids do fall through the cracks.

“And I thought ‘what an inspirational story this is, about what you can achieve if you’re given some opportunities and encouragement, and a bit of love’.”

And thus, the Foundation was born. Each year Doug, his wife Anna and his team of dedicated volunteers and paid youth workers run a variety of programs for children that focus on instilling discipline, structure and boundaries, and most importantly, an understanding of accountability (ie. you get out what you put in) and the power of their choices.

“They’re old fashioned values, but I guess I’m an old-fashioned guy,” laughs Doug.

Regardless, the program seems to be pretty effective on the youth of today. Selected participants head over to PNG to walk the real Kokoda Trail each year, and all of them participate in community service around the Gold Coast. Doug says there have been so many inspiring stories come out of the program he struggles to think of a small handful of examples. One that springs to mind is a man who will be walking part of the way of the Gold Coast event with Doug this year. We’ll call him Dave.

“Dave came in a very difficult time in his life when he was 17, and his mother had to move away for work. He had some challenges. He went through our program, got his life together, moved into a warehouse job, up to admin, into purchasing and now he’s a purchasing officer with a big company and is a lovely 30 year old man.”

Despite being 73 years old, Doug is determined to walk a decent stretch of this year’s event, having just completed the smaller Brisbane event which is 48 kms. Alongside him will be a range of teams made up of previous program participants, fitness buffs, corporate groups, school teams, and folks who are just generally keen to push and challenge themselves. In fact, the 2,500+ strong attendance list is full of just about every walk of life you can think of. Pun intended.

“It’s extraordinary,” says Doug. “People have done it five times, ten times, they keep coming up, it’s like a disease! I’ve got volunteers out there who’ve been volunteers since we started.

“There are incredible stories from the competitors – particularly women. [Women] are a lot stronger than we are, I reckon, they’ve had terrible relationships or cancer or they’ve lost a child and then they find themselves and work out how amazing and extraordinary they are, if they can just get the chance.”

There is certainly one woman without whom, the Foundation, the challenges and all of it would not be possible, Doug knows.

“My wife is my hero. She’s stood there beside me this whole time. There’s a price to pay for anything like this. We’re volunteers and we’ve never gotten paid any money, so she’s a very special lady to go through all the agony of waiting that comes with work like this.”

Through the registration costs of entering a competing team in the Gold Coast, Brisbane and Melbourne challenges, and some private sponsorship from Accor (the foundation does not receive any ongoing government support), KYF manages to raise money to fund its annual programs and pay a small management team. But the rest of the staff are volunteers.

“I think when volunteers get to know what we’re doing here, they feel pretty passionate about it,” Doug explains. “There are lots of great organisations doing amazing things out there. And I hope that we’re at least making a bit of a difference in people’s lives.

“I guess for me, I’m 73, and I’m thinking at the end of the day, if you look back on your life and can say I’ve just made a little bit of a change, changed one or two lives, how good’s that?”

We think he’s changed significantly more than one or two lives, but Doug’s humility is one of his most charming qualities.  After having served in Vietnam where he lost an eye, had his “legs smashed up”, and fought through a ‘six month to live’ stage four melanoma diagnosis a few years back, this Gold Coast treasure still feels genuinely blessed and fortunate enough that he’s happy to spend his life giving back to the community. The Kokoda Youth Foundation and its challenges may be packed to the brim with inspirational people, but its founder is up there with the best of them. And of course, he’d never admit it for a second.

Inspired yet? To get involved with the Kokoda Youth Foundation, whether as a challenge competitor, program participant, volunteer, or just to learn more about the whole endeavour, your first stop should be kokodachallenge.com. The Kokoda Challenge Gold Coast event runs from 20-21 July, and registrations were still open at the time of writing.

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