“CAN we wash your cars?” is a simple question from 20 years ago that Cath Bartolo remembers like it was yesterday.
Cath is chief executive officer with YFS, “a not-for-profit organisation that backs vulnerable people in Logan to overcome adversity and thrive”.
She recalled the question about carwashing the day after attending YFS’ recent 10th anniversary celebration for its Substation33, an electronic waste recycling centre where volunteers and employees gain confidence and skills for sustainable employment.
Pondering on the people, moments and experiences that convinced her YFS was where she was meant to be, establishing Substation33 was one that came to mind, and that reminded her of carwashing.
“When I was the disability co-ordinator (with what was then Youth and Family Services), a couple of the clients said, ‘We can’t get a job …’ – and they would’ve struggled to get employment – ‘… But can we wash the cars?’,” Cath said.
“So (that was a moment) seeing the power of little things … Little things can happen in people’s lives … And those guys still wash our cars 20 years on.
“To me, it was seeing that by listening to people – and even they had the ideas themselves – that someone like YFS can make some things happen.”
YFS has been “making things happen” in Logan, south of Brisbane, since the early 1980s when the Christian Brothers established Youth and Family Services, and Cath’s had an association there almost as far back as 1989.
Back then she was a Presentation Sister teaching at Kingston in a Centre Education Program, an alternative program to mainstream schooling.
The Christian Brothers had established a flexible learning school there as well, and Cath’s centre worked closely with them.
“While I was at Centre Ed, I was actually on the YFS management committee – because they were always looking for members to do that – so my association with YFS goes back to almost 1989, but I was on the YFS board in 1992 to 1994,” she said.
YFS has grown into a major organisation employing 165 people and offering support in areas such as housing, employment, domestic and family violence support, family and relationships services, youth services, and legal and financial counselling.
As YFS CEO, Cath on Australia Day this year was named a Member of the Order of Australia “for significant service to youth, to social welfare, and to the community of Logan”.
She’s not one to take credit for that or any other reward though.
“I suppose I’m not big on rewards …,” she said.
“When I got that AM award recently it was a great honour that was a big surprise … but, to me, it was recognising YFS getting that award, not just me personally.
“I might’ve been the leader of YFS but that was like a lovely recognition also of what we’ve achieved over the years.
“I think the reward is … I do get excited about coming to work because there’s so much we can give by our approach …
“Sometimes it’s harder to see the reward … like, the homelessness (issue) is a good example that you can’t see an instant solution but I think knowing that we’re still advocating and looking for new solutions, we’re working on things together … (that’s what matters).”
Although Logan has become such a big part of Cath’s life, she said it was almost by accident that it turned out that way.
In her early years in Logan, she decided not to take final vows with the Presentation Sisters and spent a year travelling.
“When I came back I actually took a job (in Logan) just to fill in time in the school holidays, as a disability co-ordinator and I ended up continuing that job, and I was the co-ordinator of a little group of 12 people who had disabilities,” Cath said.
“They’d left school and their parents ran (the group), and then they wanted to amalgamate with someone (because) they didn’t want the responsibility of running a new disability service, and they amalgamated with YFS in ’96.
“So I came to YFS in 1996 as a disaibility co-ordinator with these 12 clients.”
One of the reasons she stuck with the group was that she found she was learning so much from the parents and their younger ones.
The young people in the group were 18-year-olds who had just finished special school, and Cath’s role was to help develop day programs for them, and to support their parents who were mainly single mums.
“I used to advocate for those families, that they might get housing or, for their children who would one day leave home and they’d get extra support …,” Cath said.
“And it involved co-ordinating programs for the young people, employing the staff to work with them.”
After doing that for six years, Cath decided that “they probably needed someone new because I had run out of other ideas …”
“And the manager of YFS was leaving so he encouraged me to apply for his job,” she said.
“I said I couldn’t do that but I ended up applying and getting it, so I’ve been the CEO, actually, for 20 years, and I never thought I would do a job for that long, to be honest.”
She said it was “very rewarding, but it’s also obviously got it’s challenges”.
“But I work with a team of wonderful staff,” she said.
“And after being here so long, one thing that does happen is people come back.
“When our staff or programs are working with people sometimes you can’t see a lot of change over a few months but they’ll come back often and tell you, ‘Because you do this …’ – or, I didn’t personally, the staff did – ‘… I now own a home’, or ‘I now have a job, and …’
“So it’s good to sometimes hear those long-term changes because you can’t always measure them in the short term.”
The heart of Cath’s passion for her work at YFS “is just that whole goal of knowing that it is possible that people can change their circumstance with the right support”.
“I don’t mean that as a do-gooder in charity but knowing that some people haven’t had the background I’ve had of education and a strong, loving family, (and) that there’s other ways that we connect them to get that …,” she said.
“It’s almost like, through education, through employment people can progress their lives and have opportunities that open up, so that they can be independent, and (it’s about) really believing in that.
“I often say to the staff, ‘It might just take one person in their life – and it could be you – to make a difference, that they’ll think ‘You’ve been a great role model’, ‘You helped me get to school …’, ‘I’ve learnt some wisdom from you …’’
“But also it’s not that we’re doing things for people; we’re doing them with them, encouraging them …
“It’s starting with that relationship and then walking alongside people.”
Personally, she’s sustained by her faith, “and the support of family and friends and the staff here”.
“It sustains me knowing that you’re not alone; you’re working for the greater good with others,” she said.
YFS is a much larger operation than when Cath became CEO in 2002, with offices in Slacks Creek and Jimboomba, catering for population growth.
“Ten years ago we opened Substation33 … to start creating employment opportunities, because we learnt we can help people who are homeless with getting a house and teaching them tenancy skills; we can help people who are caught in domestic violence by working on safety for them – we work with the men (to) challenge them about their behaviour; we can (focus on) different parts of people’s lives – but unless they get employment, they’re not going to probably break out of some of the cycles that they are in,” she said.
The holistic approach also includes a community legal centre working with young people and advising adults, and financial counsellors.
A team helping people who are homless is paticularly busy because that “is such a serious, serious problem at the moment … and we try and support people coming in, to look for solutions”.
“That was much easier two years ago because we could easily … get a private rental for them but (that’s more difficult now),” Cath said.
“When people are coming in and they’re living in their cars, we can give them, through emergency relief, some short-term accommodation …
“But (it’s about) trying to address their situation and advocating that they get housing, with real estate agencies.
“It’s much more challenging now.”
The way the Logan community tackles such challenges is one of the main reasons Cath has stayed.
“Logan is such a great place to work,” she said.
“We work very collaboratively with the government, other community agencies, even the business sector …
“You’re learning all the time, and no day or year is the same …”
Most important for Cath has been making the “long-term investment and knowing we need to stick to it, because change won’t come overnight”.
“Another area is just the dedicated staff that I work with,” she said.
“I couldn’t do most of their jobs, to be honest.
“I came from being a teacher, disability co-ordinator and then to this, whereas I’ve not been a direct worker, like in domestic violence or with homeless people, but I just admire their determination and tenacity even when there aren’t many easy solutions, and sometimes people are challenging, but the way they are optimistic and just keep going (is inspiring).”
And she loves the diverse community, including First Nations people and others from many cultures. “People were very warm and friendly,” Cath said.
She loved “seeing all the levels of government and community and business work together”.
“We’ve got partnerships with the police, partnerships with the Department of Housing, partnerships with other community agencies,” she said.
“We can’t do it on our own; people need to work together.”
Despite the hardship she sees in the community, Cath remains a woman of hope, and that stems from the fact she “really believes that people can change their lives”.
“There’s a good spirit of people in this community of wanting to work together,” she said.
“That gives me hope – that even in this homelessness crisis that there are solutions if we keep working together.
“(We’ve) gotta think outside the box.
“It gives me hope when I hear the stories of people who do come back and can tell us now what they’re doing, (and see) that they have progressed in life – they’re now really good parents or they’re working on things …”
Cath’s key message on her work with YFS is that “we’re about building independence and participation so it’s about how vulnerable people at times just need to be backed and then they can thrive”.
“It’s often our mantra … We say, ‘If they get the right backing they will thrive’,” she said.