Punching Above His Weight
22 December 2014 at 10:55 am
At 66-years-old, social campaigner Les Twentyman is showing no signs of slowing down. Twentyman is this week’s Changemaker.
Les Twentyman has spent most of his life working to give young disadvantaged people in Melbourne’s West a second chance.
Battling cross-generational unemployment, rising drug use and a complex bureaucracy, Twentyman has his hands full.
Rather than think about retirement, he has just made a decision that will make him busier than ever, taking a 10-year-old girl with a chequered past under his wing.
Tell me a bit about your background.
Well I grew up in Braybrook, went to Braybrook High, left there and got a job at the Victorian Railways in the pay office at Flinders Street.
It was interesting because at the age of 17 I was licensed to carry a gun because my job was to escort this other guy as he put money on the trains to take to other stations to pay staff.
We worked out that if we split up we could get the job done in about half an hour, which meant that we had two and a half hours to ourselves. So we used to go the gym.
No one knew that I had a live gun with six bullets in it and I remember one day we were mucking around on the escalators at Myers and the guy I was with knocked my gun and it flipped up and fell onto the escalator on the other side.
Everyone looked around was pretty shocked to see this gun lying on the ground and I had to quickly run over and pick it up.
When I think back now it was stupid but when you’re 17 you do some pretty stupid things.
So I did that for a few years and then a guy by the name of Brendan Edwards who was a champion of the Hawthorn Football Club started up some gyms around Melbourne where we had these games called bounce ball.
I got quite good at it so they gave me a job and then eventually I went into owning it but then we went broke and I was out of a job.
But during that time we used to have three or four schools in a day and there was this Catholic school St John’s College that used to come in twice a week.
So through that I got a job at a Catholic school in Altona which I did for four years before moving to its sister school for five years.
I ended up getting a job at a Catholic primary school in Collingwood and then I got a job working with difficult girls who were wards of the State in a hostel in Carlton.
My job was to get them back into school which I did for a few years and then I moved back to Sunshine as a youth worker in 1984.
What was Sunshine like back then? Was it as notorious as it is now?
Sunshine changed way back in the 70s when Massey Ferguson went bust and 5000 families lost their jobs. From there it’s never really recovered. It’s always been a high youth unemployment area.
Today it’s got its issues around drugs and gangs and all that.
But it’s interesting because when I grew up around there, there was no such thing as unemployment, everyone had a job.
And then when I went back there as a youth worker it was hard to find a young person that did have a job.
So it was a totally different to where I grew up. I was told that would be the case but I didn’t believe it.
One afternoon though I saw a bunch of Herald newspapers being delivered to the local milk bar and this kid ran out from behind the corner and knicked a bundle of them.
I thought to myself “I know that kid, I went to school with his mum.” So I went around to his house and his father came to the door and I said “John, I just saw Travis knick a whole bunch of Herald newspapers,” and he just looked me straight in the eye and said “No you never.”
So I knew that was the kind of area I was dealing with.
About a month later I got called to a house where a kid had smashed up a house and when I got there he was sitting in the armchair with his head down, his mum was still in her nightwear from the night before and she’s got his older brother laying on the floor with an asthma pump over his face.
I was trying to talk to the kid but he was just ignoring me and he wouldn’t make eye contact with me.
About an hour later in walked his older brother with two of his mates and I found out that the previous night that those three boys were sitting on a fence drinking when they saw this bloke beating up his girlfriend so they went over there to help her and one of them picked up part of the fence and whacked him over the head.
They realised he was dead so they pulled him over to a vacant lot and covered him with grass.
They went home and told their mum so she went around there to see if the guy was actually dead, which he was, so she said “well you better get rid of the body”.
So that’s where those three boys had been while I was at the house.
So what made you want to get into this full time?
Well one time I was working with this young bloke who was giving me a hard time, but once he realised that he wasn’t going to get anywhere with that he came to me one day and asked me if I would help him take some sporting equipment around to a block of flats.
While I was helping him his sleeve lifted up and I saw three black marks on his arm. They were cigarette burns.
That’s when I decided, bugger it, I’m going to help these kids.
Do you see yourself stopping anytime soon?
No. In fact I now have a 10 year old girl living with us because my wife and I have taken her on.
Her father passed away and her mother has a drug problem so she’s been living with us for the last two and a half years.
So I’ve got to take her to school everyday and pick her up. But she’s a good kid.
How long ago did you set up the 20th Man Fund?
In 1984. Because I saw a lot of kids who didn’t have anything to do for Christmas. They didn’t have families.
I used to write a column for the local paper and one year for Christmas we had a barbeque and invited a bunch of the people I’d slagged off in my column.
At the end of the night we had $500 left over from the barbeque and my mate said why don’t you give it to the children’s hospital but I thought it would be better to help some of these kids that don’t have families.
So we used the money to hold a Christmas party for 16 homeless of kids.
This year’s our 32nd year of doing it now.
Do you think there is hope for the worst parts of the western suburbs?
Well the problem with the West is that there’s not enough jobs for young people.
One of the things I want to see is more specialised schools for kids because it’s not a matter of one shoe fits all.
I want to see more focus on the arts and sport as a stimulator to get kids more interested in school.
I’d also like to see each school have dedicated outreach youth workers because it’s not happening at the moment and the kids are just falling out of school and rolling into alcohol and drugs and then into the gangs.
There needs to be a circuit breaker. We need to have a more alternative education system.
What’s the most challenging part of your work?
Because we’re funded there is all these fu***** compliances that we have to meet.
You submit one form to a Government department and then you find out that you need to submit another one to another department and then another one, and it just keeps on going on like that.
We want our youth workers out doing face to face stuff but they're all tied up doing paperwork.
What’s the most rewarding part?
Getting a thank you from a kid after you give them a Christmas present. that puts a smile on your face.
The best thing I’ve done was getting our refuge built in Sunshine, which in October celebrated its 20th year and has had 1500 kids through it.
What’s your ultimate goal you’d like to achieve through your work?
There’s a problem with youth work in that the youth workers are far too academic and they don’t know how to interact with the really hard core kids.
I’d like to see a real specialised youth service that deals with the really tough kids.
There’s a guy called Christopher “Badness” Binnes who was in a holdup a while ago and he’s in prison now.
His father was in prison too. Now I claim that if someone like me could have been in touch with him from an early age that could be a different story.
We need to be able to break the cycle of generations going to jail. That’s why we need specialised education that fits the needs of the kids.
At the moment youth work is almost artificial and sterile, so I’d like to change that.
What did school teach you?
How to cheat. I was pretty good at that.
I actually really liked going to school because there were girls there and I was the footy captain and the cricket captain.
It taught me that basically people need people.
That’s what I think the problem is today. Kids are addicted to computers and the internet. They don’t know how to interrelate with other people.
School can teach you about making networks, which is something you need in life.
What inspires you?
Seeing kids that have really been in terrible dysfunctional families and instead of going down the gurgler they climb their way out of it.
There’s a good saying; “Once you’ve swam in the depths of the ocean, you should never be afraid to fly”.
If you’re beaten and you get an opportunity you should take it.
That’s what inspires me.