MERCURY SERIES - Making A Difference
For seven years Melissa Abu-Gazaleh has organised an annual competition to foster inclusion, build resilience and ensure the well-being of young men.
What originally started as Illawarra's Best Catch attracted plenty of attention but the former Kanahooka High School student's main passion was to make a difference in the lives of people in a group with the highest unemployment rate in the region.
The Top Blokes Foundation has now helped more than 200 young men.
"It has been about holding them up as a positive male role model," Ms Abu-Gazaleh said. "And it was about them volunteering and doing something a bit extra."
Ms Abu-Gazaleh was a 19-year-old second-year communication and media studies student when she decided to start the initiative in 2006 and has been a volunteer ever since.
"I just wanted to see more positive stories about young men in the media," she said.
"At that stage 70 per cent of what we saw in the media about young men was negative. So I decided, let's do something to give young men an opportunity to be a good news story. Then, the Top Blokes Award came about. We did it and then got funded the next year to do it again. Then we got sponsors ... and it just kept growing."
Recently Google joined as a corporate volunteer. Local sponsors have included Hillross Financial Services, Peoplecare, St George Bank, KPMG Wollongong, Access Law Group and McDonald's.
"After I did the first dinner, I realised I really liked working in the area so I dropped back to part-time uni and did full-time TAFE in welfare," Ms Abu-Gazaleh said.
"I always hoped that I could have a job in this field. But as a 19-year-old when I started to see how disconnected and disengaged young men were from our community ... I wanted to volunteer with an organisation that addressed these issues.
"When I found there were none ... I decided to start one myself."
Next Tuesday the foundation she started will hold a "Where Are They Now" function, featuring many of the young men it worked with over seven years.
Volunteers Jessica Van Linden, Ben Riley, Jake Smith, Fiona Skentzos, Sana Altai and Marc Bowditch will be present, along with youth worker Chadwick Spinazza who recently became the foundation's first paid staff member.
"This year has been exciting for us because we have had new funding come through from the St George Foundation to pilot new programs," Ms Abu-Gazaleh said. "We are doing a junior Top Blokes leadership program, which is taking Top Blokes who we have worked with before and helping them to be mentors in high schools. They are working with adolescent boys on issues such as respectful relationships, mental health and well-being, leadership and personal decision-making.
"It is a six-week program and it is driven by the young men."
Another new program is called Building Blokes.
"It is taking young guys and giving them a soft entry point to try volunteering with one-off volunteer opportunities," she said.
Ms Abu-Gazaleh said the foundation was so busy with new programs it decided not to do the annual awards dinner this year but Tuesday's function would double as a showcase for what was planned in 2013.
She said she had recently left her job as a youth worker at Port Kembla so she could spend more time as a volunteer.
"I would rather follow my dream than do something just for money," she said.
"The thing I realised last year was that building the sustainability of the organisation was a full-time job. So, I decided to quit my day job . . . but I still work as a case worker on weekends."
Ms Abu-Gazaleh has been invited to speak throughout Australia on what the foundation has achieved in Wollongong.
"I have been really fortunate to be able to bring awareness and highlight the issues that do affect young guys . . . and particularly around how to engage young men in the community," she said.
Ms Abu-Gazaleh was recently elected chair of the Port Kembla Youth Project. She was also a co-founder of Angels at Work and is a member of JCI Illawarra.