Wollongong resident Melissa Abu-Gazaleh finds out on Monday night if she is the 2016 Young Australian of the Year.
It is already shaping up to be a big year for Ms Abu-Gazaleh, of Kanahooka, who gets married to fiance James Hayden in April and is about to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the foundation she started to help young men in the community.
The 29 year-old was named NSW Young Australian of the Year in November for her work helping male youth. She was a 19 year old youth worker at Port Kembla when she decided to start the charity because she was tired of seeing young men often stereotyped as drunk and violent no-hopers.
Ms Abu-Gazaleh joins young men and women from all other states and territories as finalists for the national Young Australian of the Year Award announcement by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in Canberra on Monday night.
It is part of a ceremony being broadcast live on ABC TV from 7.30pm. Prior to that is footage about the finalists.
Ms Abu-Gazaleh said four days of activity around the announcement started on Friday with a lunch attended by NSW Premier Mike Baird and Jessica Mauboy near Luna Park. She arrived in Canberra on Saturday morning where a 12 hour a day itinerary was waiting for her for each of the three days leading into the announcement of Australian of the Year, Young Australian of the Year and Senior Australian of the Year.
It reinforces that we are on the right track with Top BlokesMelissa Abu Gazaleh
“I first received a certificate to say I was nominated and then I received a phone call to say I was in top four for NSW,” she said.
“Then I attended the award ceremony in Sydney and received the award as the NSW Young Australian of the Year. It turns out it was one of my colleagues who nominated me.”
Ms Abu-Gazaleh said as she found out about each state winner she just admired the work they did and felt honoured to be in such great company.
“Taking out the state award was an incredible feeling because it reinforces that we are on the right track with Top Blokes,” she said.
Ms Abu-Gazaleh has previously been recognised as one of Australia’s Top 100 Brightest Young Minds and 50 Young and Extraordinary People.
She is a former Illawarra Young Entrepreneur of the Year and Illawarra Volunteer of the Year and a finalist for the Hesta Local Hero Awards.
Many first heard of the foundation for the annual Illawarra’s Top Blokes Award ran when it started out a decade ago.
“We are going from strength to strength,” Ms Abu-Gazaleh said.
“We are currently operating our programs across different regions throughout NSW. Our team (12 people) is bigger than it has ever been. And we are impacting and reaching more young men then we ever have.”
The goal still is to roll Top Blokes out nationally.
“What he have been focusing on the last two years is building the organisations sustainability and making sure when we do expand we are not just there for a little bit. We want to be there for a long time so we can make a long term impact on the community.”
Ms Abu-Gazaleh said the idea for Top Blokes came when she was working as a youth worker with the Port Kembla Youth Project.
She said that was great experience and she wanted to use that to help more young men in many communities.
“I spent many years learning about community development and how to make an impact on a local level,” she said.
“I realised we needed more programs that were designed by young people for young people. I particularly realised that young men need more specialised programming. That was particularly helpful in addressing social issues they may be challenged with.”
Ms Abu-Galaleh and her team are presently reviewing all their programs because they want to run them all as well as they can and do that consistently.
“We have just received funding to carry out a three year social impact study for the work that we do,” she said.
“It is an opportunity to demonstrate the social impact that our work is having on the young men that we work with.”
Ms Abu-Gazaleh said Top Blokes wanted to continue to address the needs of young men today. She said many people in her personal life had helped considerably with her development and growth by investing in her emotionally.
“They helped me to believe what I was passionate about, what I wanted to stand for and the impact I wanted to make,” she said.
“That gave me the confidence to take a crazy idea that I had and actually bring it to reality.”
Ms Abu-Galazeh said she was most happy about the recognition her team was getting for what Top Blokes was trying to do and the importance of looking at the health of young men.
“Obviously in the media there has been a lot about alcohol fueled violence, domestic violence and youth unemployment,” she said.
“We ask young men what we can do for them and what they think will actually work. Hopefully we all recognise that now is the time that we need to talk about young men’s health.”
Ms Abu-Gazaleh keeps doing what she does because she saw a gap in a particular age group that she felt needed to be bridged.
“I think we (Top Blokes) are definitely on the right track. It is now about continuing our momentum..and we won’t stop until we see that social education is embedded in all educational curriculums and across communities. Boys will always come across different temptations and different social issues. But until we can build the right skill sets and until we build their emotional resilience for them to be able to make better choices….there is still a lot of work to do.”
Ms Abu-Gazaleh said the initiative had definitely given her own life more meaning as well. She said that (finding meaning) was something that helped everyone. And she is amazed at how the Top Blokes team had taken her vision on and made what has been achieved during the last decade possible.
“They are the ones who are carrying it out,” she said.
“They are the ones working day-in and day-out with the boys. It definitely has grown and I appreciate everyone who has mentored and supported me along the way.”
Ms Abu-Gazaleh said she had grown so much as a young person herself through the process.
Top Blokes survives of philanthropic support from generous companies as well as community donations.
Some programs are run on a fee-for-service basis for schools and communities that can afford to make a contribution.
Top Blokes does not hold the annual awards any more because it realised it could help many more youth by using all resources for the programs it runs.
“Another thing we are doing this year is licencing our programs for regional and rural areas across NSW,” she said.
“We realised to expand sustainability it is going to be quite expensive. So we thought the best way to do it is work with different community organisations in rural areas that have a small population, and actually train that community to be able to run the program with their local young men. So we will be increasing our footprint over the next 12 months.”
Ms Abu-Gazaleh felt privileged to be part of the major event hosted by the Prime Minister in Canberra to start national celebrations on the eve of Australia Day.
The awards announcement will be followed by a concert featuring Jimmy Barnes.
It is so big and so significant the stage was erected and streets closed two weeks ago.
“When you see the enormity of the whole process and all the effort that has gone into it you can’t help but feel overwhelmed...but humbled and privileged to get to be part of it all,” Ms Abu Gazaleh said.
“I am going in there to enjoy every experience and make new friends and hopefully make new connections that will benefit the Top Blokes Foundation.”
Ms Abu-Gazaleh said it was a great opportunity to talk about the work her amazing team did.
She is being joined in Canberra on Monday by her fiance, her mother Nadia Abu-Gazaleh and her soon to be mother-in-law Anne De Rosa.
And she wanted to thank the Illawarra for the continued support it has given the Top Blokes Foundation during the last decade.
“It really has been because of the support of the Illawarra that Top Blokes really is what it is today,” she said.
“I would like to thank the whole community.”
Previous stories about Melissa Abu-Gazaleh’s achievements