FORMER Greenacres chief executive Neil Preston returned to a hero's welcome yesterday at the disability service's North Wollongong headquarters after being named Wollongong's Citizen of the Year.
Greenacres had nominated Mr Preston for the award in recognition of his hard work for the community as well as disability services.
Mr Preston told staff during a short presentation he had been "gobsmacked" to receive the award.
"I was absolutely shocked. I couldn't believe it when I heard it," he said.
"I felt so humbled to be honoured by the city and the people."
Current Greenacres CEO Chris Christodoulou said nominating Mr Preston was the least the organisation could do after his many contributions.
"It's great recognition for Neil and we're very proud of him," Mr Christodoulou said.
Fred Nulthal, 58, and with Greenacres for 27 years, said Mr Preston deserved the award. "He is a great guy," Mr Nulthal said.
Mr Preston said it was very special to come back to Greenacres.
"To see them still loving what they're doing every day and feeling like they're part of society and valued is something I love," he said.
Natalie Russoniello, 35, has been with Greenacres for 16 years.
"It's really good working here," she said.
"Good people, good trainers, good supervisors."
During Mr Preston's time as chief executive, Greenacres extended from six to 32 sites.
"We went from a couple of hundred people to nearly a thousand," Mr Preston said.
"We were able to extend Greenacres' philosophy, culture and mindset down to Nowra and Ulladulla."
Mr Preston was CEO for 16 years. He left in 2011.