Changing young lives

Gold Coast Project for Homeless YouthIt’s not until you have children that you realise the size of the task before you. Every little thing you say and do helps to shape the young people in your care. Sadly not all children have the equal opportunities and for many reasons thousands of young people find themselves living on the streets.
When my mum retired she joined the committee of the Gold Coast Project for Homeless Youth, an organisation which provides crisis care, short and medium term accommodation to young people in need.
Over the past few years mum has shared some of the success stories of this vital organisation and in particular stories about a man called Bill Hoyer. For the past 25 years Bill has given his time as the voluntary president. On September 17 he stood down and handed over the presidency to a young tax lawyer called Andrew. I recently met the pair and wrote about them for the Gold Coast Bulletin. I was particularly interested in Bill’s thoughts on why some families implode and how the GCPHY helps them get back on track,
This is what I wrote.

Have you heard the story about the American cattleman turned academic and the Canadian tax lawyer?
There’s no punchline; this is not a joke.
This is a story about two inspirational men who are changing the lives of at-risk Gold Coast teenagers.
Bill Hoyer, 70, has just signed off from the Gold Coast Project for Homeless Youth (GCPHY) after 25 years of voluntary service as president.
In his time a the helm of this vital organisation, which provides crisis care, short and medium term accommodation to young people in need, Bill has grown the organisation and touched the lives of thousands of teenagers.
On September 17, Bill retired and endorsed a 31-year-old tax lawyer to replace him.
Andrew Antonopoulos arrived on the Gold Coast nine years ago from Canada via Brussels.
“If you find an Andrew Antonopoulos you want to make sure you get him in there,” explains Bill.
“They don’t come along like Andrew everyday. I’ve never met anybody in 25 years better placed for the presidency than Andrew.”

You only need to spend a short time with Bill to realise he’s a storyteller; a doer; an intelligent, wise and charismatic man who says it like it is.
While he’s never had any of his own children, Bill has spent the past 25 years being a surrogate parent to thousands of others.
He says the key is to build confidence in young people, to support them until they have the confidence to fly solo.
“We say to the people who come here, ‘How do we turn this around for you?’
“We underpin them; give them an opportunity.
“Pats on the back, ‘Give it a try’ … I prefer a bit of rogue in kids. When they have that you can do something with them.
“Sometimes when kids have been beaten to pieces it’s really hard to pull them through.
“If you’re going to bring kids along give them some challenges they can succeed at.”

Bill was raised on a cattle property in Indiana America, among a strong Amish community.
While his parents were not Amish, Bill grew up alongside the Amish children and came to appreciate their simple way of life.
“The lifestyle I grew up around was extremely traditional and agrarian,” he says.
“The daily tasks of my parents and grandparents were almost like the Amish; limited travel, horses for farming. For me it was just a part of life.”
Bill graduated from school 27th out of 27 students. He qualified as a teacher and when he graduated from university decided it was time to see the world.
He arrived in Australia and found a job cutting meat in Mt Isa with ‘Speedy Smyth’.
“My visa cost me $10, I knew no one,” says Bill.
“This guy was my first connection.”
One job led to another and Bill was soon mustering wild cattle on a million-acre property in the Northern Territory. The owner, American Doug Howenstine, made Bill manager and eventually business partner.
“Then they found the world’s largest lead and zinc deposits on our property and we sold to Mt Isa Mines,” says Bill.
“I had to do most of the negotiations with Sir James Foots, the chairman of the Mt Isa Mines; this farm kid from Indiana who graduated 27 out of 27 had a drenching in business. When I walk into places down here now, nothing scares me.”

While working on the property Bill met his Swiss wife Nora and after the sale they moved to the Gold Coast hinterland.
Bill studied a doctorate in Anthropology and headed up Gold Coast TAFE’s Adult Literacy department.
Bill says very early in his time with the GCPHY he realised that for young people to gain purpose they had to be encouraged to train for work, or continue their education.
“We’re so experienced now, we know when a kid is out of school and when they are legitimately homeless, in trouble and vulnerable.
“Our staff are very well trained. Rarely do we reject anybody unless there’s no bed available. In one way or another there always is.
“There are trends in their background where they didn’t have good support … all sorts of different things; lack of family support, difficulties within families.
“It depends on the person and on their attitude. Every kid coming through has different challenges to overcome. It’s about equipping our team to manage those unforseen challenges. Mental health, abuse, drugs, alcohol. This house is the best chance somebody in that lifestyle has. We guide them through so they can come out the other end better than they came in.”
The organisation started with eight youth workers and now has a team of 30, working across three properties and a mobile support service.
“The problems keep coming,” says Bill.
“We’re not going out of business real fast.”

GCPHY is run by a voluntary management committee, whose brief is to ‘encourage young people to reach their full potential by providing quality services in a safe and supportive environment.’
Andrew Antonopoulos knows the difference the right support and the right environment can have.
This tax lawyer, whose clients include some of the city’s leading businesses, trained at Bond University and mixes in entitled circles.
But Andrew doesn’t take his good fortune for granted. In fact everything he’s achieved in life has been due to hard work and personal effort.
He was born and raised in Vancouver Canada, one of three boys. He is the first member of his family to study at university.
But it was a decision his mother made when he was 11 that gave Andrew an awareness and empathy for the plight of others.
“Mum is a special needs assistant and she fostered a 16-year-old boy with severe autism,” says Andrew.
“Dennis became my third brother. He was quite violent and his family couldn’t do it.
“If we didn’t take Dennis into our home he would have gone into a group home.
“For mum it was about giving back and supporting him. He was with us for 15 years, until my parents got too old and couldn’t handle it.
“My mum was fantastic about getting him out, doing respite, we was very much a member of the family.
“Looking back it changed me a lot. At the time I never appreciated that it was different to what other people had.”

After school Andrew studied political science, before heading to Brussels where he worked in the European Parliament.
The call of law was strong and he successfully applied for a scholarship to study at Bond University.
He arrived nine years ago and never left.
His first job was with the Bell Legal Group, where Gold Coast councillor and former Mayor and State MP, Lex Bell, became his mentor.
It was while at the Bell Legal Group that Andrew had his first encounter with the Project for Homeless Youth and with Bill Hoyer.
“Bill said to me, ‘We want you to be a member, do you want to be part of the committee,’” recalls Andrew.
“’You’ll just have to sit there an offer input,’ he told me.
“Then it was, ‘We need a Vice President’. Then it was ‘I’m going to resign and I’m putting you forward for President.’”

What Andrew brings to the organisation is his education and knowledge, but also his youth and his contacts.
His anticipated appointment marks the next phase for this organisation, which has attracted the support of Ruth Tate’s Mayoress Charity Foundation, Oz Harvest and Villa World.
“I have always looked at communities and thought, ‘What can I do to help?’” says Andrew.
“Time is the one thing I can give. What can I do to make it better. This was an organisation that stood out 100 per cent.
“I really liked the outcomes that I heard about. GCPHY tries to rehabilitate clients and transfer them to independent living by giving them life skills and trying to get them into the workforce; helping with CVs, encouraging them back to school.
“The dynamic in the houses was remarkable. Everybody here is welcoming; they’re very warm and have empathy.
“There’s compassion and there’s always someone here to talk to in a very non-judgemental way.
“In my life I see both extremes of the Gold Coast. Through my work as a tax lawyer I see that side of town. It’s very easy to ignore the other side but I think we still have time to rehabilitate youngsters coming through and create a longer life, a successful life.”
Just as Bill has lobbied him to serve his community, Andrew plans to do the same to his friends, work colleagues and clients.
“I want to bring in this generation of the Gold Coast to keep this going,” he says.
“The project has been a very quiet achiever doing phenomenal work. I’d like to see younger professionals on the Gold Coast get on board and recognise there is a need; everybody who wants to help can and should in their own way. People can contribute in any way they want.”
www.homelessyouth.com.au