“If you want change, then be the change” is a mantra adopted by the CEO of Youth Projects Ltd, Ben Vasiliou, in a life dedicated to making a difference for others.
His work among the homeless and young people on the streets of Melbourne has led to him being shortlisted for the prestigious “CEO of the Year” category at the Third Sector 2021 Awards, announced in November.
“The nomination means we make a difference, and that means if you’re up and running, you can bring about change,” Vasiliou told Neos Kosmos.
Mr Vasiliou, 36, has been the organization’s CEO since 2017 after working as the CEO of Skills Plus in Frankston, which took care of the needs of refugees and people with disabilities at the time.
“I’ve been a social worker all my life,” he said. He and his two sisters, Rebecca and Kimberley, were raised by their mother, Sharon. When she became ill with cancer, they helped in her care until her death in 2002. “We then traveled each other.”
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That year, after the Bali bombing, he went to the island and worked through the Bali project, helping young people there recover from the bombing.
“I returned to Australia to work in the social sector 18 years ago. I have a lived experience of being poor and having to fight to build a good life, ”he said. He went on to study youth work and was also to receive a master’s certificate in human resources and professions. In 2020, before COVID, he won a scholarship to an executive education program at Stanford University in California.
“I am passionate about helping young people and their families break the cycle of poverty and disadvantage.”
Youth Projects was launched in Glen Roy in 1984 in response to unemployment, which resulted in a decline in production. Unemployment rates were particularly high among young people and resulted in high levels of drug and alcohol abuse.
The organization has grown to include other parts of Melbourne, and Mr Vasiliou is responsible for the well-being of 125 full-time, part-time and relaxed staff.
Today, the organization has provided services to over 10,000 young people who promote mental and physical health, counseling on drug and alcohol abuse as well as preparing them for work and internships. In addition to helping the homeless find places to live, the Youth Project has continued to offer services to the homeless in a safe environment during the COVID crisis.
“We are an important service with an ongoing COVID-safe outreach program for the community.
“In the CBD (through the living room), we have continued to support the homeless by giving them access to doctors and nurses, access to podiatrists and opticians, as well as mental health support, medication and alcohol counseling.
“Under COVID, we have moved 250 people from the streets into secure housing. The focus is on young people and families, but we want to support everyone who is homeless, ”said Vasiliou.
Over 20 nationalities, including Greeks, are represented among the people receiving assistance, and the age groups are from 12 to 82 years. He estimated that about 60 percent of the people who received help were from a “non-English” background.
He said Melbourne had experienced 250 days of lockdowns over the past 18 months and children missing 30 weeks of schooling increased the social costs of the pandemic.
“Every week, 342 teenagers in Victoria go to the hospital for a mental emergency, of which 156 self-harm and 37 require respirators in the hospital.
“So now we are trying to ensure that everyone who wants to get vaccinated has to get vaccinated because we have to open up.
“We have launched an online education campaign in the form of a video in 10 different languages that promotes vaccination. We also conduct our own vaccinations every day in the CBD through our nurses and will set up a vaccination pop-up clinic for families in Glen Roy.
He said that as a result of the blockades, there had been an increase in homelessness, domestic violence and drug and alcohol abuse. There was massive uncertainty about the way forward, with some societies facing 50 percent unemployment.
“I have a no-nonsense approach to providing services to the very vulnerable. Often, bureaucracy is the biggest obstacle to change. I make sure that the vulnerable are heard and given a voice. It is not about a hand out, but a hand up, ”said Vasiliou.
He added, however, that the organization received funding from all three levels of government as well as from philanthropists, grants and the organization’s own fundraising efforts.
He said the pandemic had revealed a growing gap between rich and poor and that there would be a need to provide disadvantaged young people with greater opportunities to achieve better qualifications and provide better forms of learning for young pupils who did not fit into traditional school systems.
“My grandparents came from northern Greece in the 1940s and settled on Napier Street, in Fitzroy. That generation of migrants found jobs and housing immediately. Not everyone has those options now. ”
“I believe that Greek society could reach out and offer support to the newer societies facing major challenges.”