NSW - FINALISTS - YOUNG AUSTRALIAN OF THE YEAR
Melissa Abu-Gazaleh, 28 - Youth advocate (Kanahooka)
Tired of seeing young men painted as drunk and violent no-hopers, Melissa Abu-Gazaleh established the youth-led Top Blokes Foundation when she was just 19. As Chief Executive Officer of the New South Wales organisation, Melissa is helping Australia combat anti-social and risk-taking behaviours among young men and busting many negative stereotypes along the way. Reaching thousands of 14 to 24 year olds each year, the Top Blokes Foundation fosters young men's social inclusion, resilience and mental health, while empowering them to contribute to their community through volunteering. Melissa’s Junior Top Blokes Mentoring Program, for example, uses social education to challenge boys to address issues like alcohol, drugs, mental health, anger, masculinity and pornography. What started off as a “thing to do in her spare time” now occupies her every waking moment, and Melissa sits on boards, chairs committees and manages a team of 14 people who are passionate about youth leadership and empowering people to be agents of change.
Nathan Basha, 24 - Disability advocate (Huntleys Cove)
A social entrepreneur pushing boundaries, Nathan Basha is living proof that disability does not equal disabled. Nathan might happen to have Down syndrome but, as he says, “that’s not who I am”. As a motivational speaker, Nathan has presented at national and international conferences and political forums, universities and schools to share his insights into the possibilities when people are encouraged to reach their potential. An actor, university student, filmmaker and employee at Sydney’s NOVA radio station and Taste Creative, Nathan is also an ambassador for the Living Life My Way campaign. Through his social enterprise, NB* No Barriers, Nathan is focused on engaging with the corporate sector to change attitudes around employment for people with disability. He’s hosted workshops to inspire people with intellectual disability to find their dream job, teaching employment skills and the secrets to writing a super CV. Just 10 per cent of people with intellectual disability are employed in Australia’s open labour market and Nathan is determined to smash this statistic while helping people live their dreams.
Liam Knight, 20 - Anti-violence advocate (Frenchs Forest)
In January 2013, Liam Knight was at a party when a gate-crasher threw a metal rod at his head, piercing his skull. Fortunately Liam survived, but he has been left with lifelong disabilities and faces a long road of rehabilitation from the brain damage he suffered. Determined to “take something positive out of a negative", Liam helped establish the White Knight Foundation in August 2013, making a personal donation of $5,000 to kick start his cause. The Foundation aims to draw attention to the prevalence of alcohol-fuelled violence among young people and to raise funds for young victims and their families. Liam is now an active motivational speaker and fundraiser for his charity and inspires young people to overcome adversity, set goals, maintain a positive attitude and "get on with it". With extraordinary bravery, fortitude and optimism, Liam continues to embody the Foundation’s motto: “an act of kindness will always outshine an act of violence”.
Laura O’Reilly, 29 and Jordan O'Reilly, 27 - Social entrepreneurs (Forestville)
For sibling team Laura and Jordan O’Reilly, the origins of their social enterprise began on an overnight bus ride through the French Alps in 2009. The pair imagined a better future for their younger brother Shane, who had cerebral palsy. Their vision included more opportunities for Shane to participate in his community, to work and to live independently. Today, these are the core preoccupations of the pair’s not-for-profit, Fighting Chance. With ingenuity, determination and selflessness, Laura and Jordan have worked tirelessly to make Australia a better place for the 4 million people living with a disability. Since opening its doors in 2011, Fighting Chance has raised more than $3.1 million and runs a range of programs, including vocational programs to challenge unemployment and social programs to tackle isolation. Sadly, Shane passed away a few months after Fighting Chance was launched, but Shane’s legacy is an organisation that is enriching the lives of people living with disability, and their families too.