“If you want change, then be the change” is a mantra the CEO of Youth Projects Ltd, Ben Vasiliou, has adopted in a life that is dedicated to making a difference for others.

His work among the homeless and young on Melbourne’s streets have led to his being shortlisted for the prestigious Third Sector 2021 Awards’ “CEO of the Year” category which will be announced in November.

“The nomination means we are making a difference and it means if you have a go you can bring out change,” Mr Vasiliou told Neos Kosmos.

Mr Vasiliou, 36, has been the organisation’s CEO since 2017 having worked as the CEO of Skills Plus in Frankston, which looked after then needs of refugees and people with disabilities.

“I have been a social worker my whole life,” he said. He and his two sisters, Rebecca and Kimberley, were raised by their mother, Sharon. When she fell sick with cancer, they helped in her care until her death in 2002. “We then raised each other.”

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That year, following the Bali bombing, he went to the island and working through the Bali Project helped 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 studied to become a youth worker and also was to receive a graduate certificate in human resources and business. In 2020, before COVID, he won a scholarship for an executive education programme at Stanford University in California.

“I am passionate about helping the young and their families to break the cycle of poverty and disadvantage.”

Youth Projects was launched in Glen Roy in 1984 in reaction to the unemployment that resulted with a downturn in manufacturing. The unemployment figures were particularly high among the young and resulted in high levels of drug and alcohol abuse.

The organisation has grown to encompass other parts of Melbourne and Mr Vasiliou is responsible for the well-being of 125 members of staff who are full-time, part-time and casual.

Today the organisation has delivered services to over 10,000 youths which promote mental and physical health, counselling for drug and alcohol abuse, as well as preparing them for work and job placements. As well as helping the homeless find places to live, during the COVID crisis, Youth Project has continued to offer services to the homeless in a safe environment.

“We are an essential service with an ongoing COVID-safe outreach programme for the community.

“In the CBD (through the Living Room premises) we have continued to support the homeless providing them with access to doctors and nurses, access to podiatrists and optometrists as well mental health support, drug and alcohol counselling.

A nurse provides COVID-19 testing at the Living room. The organisation is working hard to promote vaccination in the community. Photo: Supplied

“During the COVID we have moved 250 people off the streets and into safe accommodation. The focus is on youth and families but we will support anyone who is homeless,” Mr Vasiliou said.

Over 20 nationalities, including Greeks, are represented among the people who receive help and the ages range from 12 to 82 years old. He estimated that about 60 percent of the people who received help were from a “non-English” background.

He said with Melbourne having experienced 250 days in lockdowns over the past 18 months and children missing 30 weeks of schooling the social cost of the pandemic was mounting.

“Each week 342 teens in Victoria go to hospital for a mental health emergency, of that number 156 of them self-harm and 37 require ventilators in hospital.

“So now we are attempting to ensure that everyone who wants to vaccinate must vaccinate because we must open up.

“We have rolled out an online education campaign in the form of a video in 10 different languages that promotes vaccination. We are also conducting 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 result of the lockdowns there had been an increase in homelessness, family violence and drug and alcohol abuse. There was massive uncertainty as to the way ahead with some communities facing 50 percent unemployment.

“I have a no-nonsense approach to delivering services to the very vulnerable. Often the main obstacle to change is bureaucracy. I make sure that the vulnerable are heard and given voice. It is not about a hand out but a hand up,” Mr Vasiliou said.

He added, however, that the organisation received funding from all three tiers of government as well as from philanthropists, grants and the organisation’s own fundraising efforts.

He said the pandemic had exposed a growing gap between rich and poor and there would be a need to give disadvantaged young people greater opportunities to gain better qualifications and to provide better modes of learning for young learners who did not fit into traditional schooling systems.

“My grandparents came from northern Greece in the 1940s and settled in Napier Street, in Fitzroy. That generation of migrants found jobs and housing straight away. Not everyone has those opportunities now.”

“I think the Greek community could reach out and offer support to the newer communities who are facing major challenges.”

A Youth Project team member delivers food boxes to the Living Room. Photo: Supplied