Family Foundations Fortified

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John Caruso discovers the transformative power of a unique father-son experience that bridges generations and fosters growth, connection, and a deeper understanding of each other…

Raising kids can be one of the most challenging and yet rewarding experiences ever, navigating an often-rocky road with no user manual or instructions available. We all want the very best for them, carefully guiding them along the path to adulthood. My wife and I have been fortunate enough to have spent almost every single day by our son’s side however questions can remain unanswered in terms of who and exactly what kind of human we’re raising.

I approached the weekend at Emu Gully, between Helidon and Toowoomba with some reservations. Having spent many years as a breakfast show host on commercial radio, I’d faced my fears, even to a point beyond embarrassment, from posing for a life-drawing class in front of twenty strangers to skydiving. I felt I had nothing to prove to anyone, comfortable in my own skin, however what I did get out of the weekend, and this was the ‘big thing’ for me, was addressing this question of exactly what kind of person, our son Max was. To my surprise, I realised that he is far more courageous and much stronger than I ever knew. If the saying is true about kids hearing their parents’ voices in their heads throughout their life, then what better than reinforcing a message of courage and strength.

The program at Emu Gully, Instant Thunder, has been developed by Brendon Rademakers, and AFL Hall of Fame player and former Australian Father of The Year, Paul Roos.

“It’s more than just a camp; it’s an experience designed to bridge the gap between generations and equip families with the tools to navigate the complexities of modern life,” Brendon believes.

The program’s development and journey began far from the Queensland outback.

“I was working in Hollywood, surrounded by success, yet personally grappling with the aftermath of a traumatic event and the loss of a parent.  Seeking solace, I turned to a community of leading wellness experts in Malibu and these gatherings sparked a passion for combining powerful storytelling with science-backed strategies to improve mental well-being,” Brendon explains.

Back in Australia the federal government was keen to address the growing mental health concerns plaguing families and Brendon together with his partner Marina Passalaris, who had already established Beautiful Minds, a successful organisation focused on children’s well-being, saw a perfect opportunity to combine their expertise.

Jimmy Mitchell was the presenter and storyteller at Emu Gully outlining and setting up the challenges with Jamieson Doyle-Taylor from the Gold Coast who was acting as the facilitator for the Instant Thunder program the weekend Max and I attended. Team-building exercises like trudging through chin-high mud, night hikes, buggies, giant slides and navigating underground water filled tunnels were all part of the weekend.

“There are programs out there,” says Brendon, “but most are either clinical or superficial. We wanted something aspirational, something that would empower fathers to become heroes in their sons’ stories.”  Instant Thunder is built on the belief that families are the cornerstone of a healthy society and equipping them with the right tools is paramount.  “Families have never been given a toolkit for life,” he emphasises. “We’re here to change that.”

Instant Thunder isn’t about lectures or quick fixes. It’s about creating an environment where fathers and sons can learn and grow together.  Through a combination of outdoor activities, storytelling sessions, and facilitated discussions with the program fostering deeper understanding and communication. Brendon highlights the importance of experiences: “Experiences are at the heart of change. This work can’t be done online.”

The program offers a safe space for boys aged seven to fourteen, a crucial period for identity formation, to explore their strengths and build self-confidence. “We want sons to find a sense of competence and mastery,” he explains. Fathers, too, benefit from the experience.  “Dads leave wanting to become better leaders in the home,” he says, emphasising the importance of work-life balance and quality time with their children.

While Instant Thunder focuses on fathers and sons, Brendon acknowledges the need for similar experiences across family dynamics.  Beautiful Minds is a leader in Mother and Daughter Retreats, offering a more serene and introspective experience.  New programs, like the Mum and Son Adventure Camps, cater to a broader range of family needs and these experiences have been helped along the way with input from cricketer Marnus Labuschagne, embracing a more adventurous spirit with activities like abseiling and raft building.

As Max and I departed the Instant Thunder camp on the Sunday afternoon, we both felt a sense of accomplishment and probably a better understanding of each other. The experience had brought us closer together, and I’d gained a newfound appreciation for my son’s courage and strength. I realised that parenting is not about having all the answers, but about being present and supportive on the journey. The Instant Thunder program had provided us with a unique opportunity to bond and create some lifelong memories. As we returned home, I felt more confident in my role as a father and prouder of the person Max is becoming. The experience had been a powerful reminder that, even in the midst of uncertainty, we can always find growth and connection in the unlikeliest of places.

About the Author /

After 30 years in radio, John now runs the Conversations IN Noosa podcast and in between being our writer, sanity checker, accounts manager, event MC, and delivery boy; he spends time with his first love, recording a daily Drive program for regional radio from home (often in his pyjamas); and presenting Saturday mornings on Hot 91.1. He has previously worked for FoxFM Melbourne, Triple M Brisbane and SeaFM, as well as managing and presenting on ABC Sunshine Coast.

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