• Vanguard Laundry employee Natsenet Aradom is from Eritrea. (SBS)Source: SBS
In the Queensland town of Toowoomba jobless figures have spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic, with a forecast of 10 per cent for the June quarter, among the highest in the nation. For refugees, the long term unemployed or people living with mental health issues work is even harder to find. And that’s where Vanguard Laundry Services steps in.
Sandra Fulloon

8 Jun 2020 - 1:13 PM 

Jon Mitchell is one of Vanguard Laundry’s success stories. The 54-year-old says his life has changed since he began doing shifts, four years ago.

“Vanguard has given me a whole new life. It’s got me back on track,” Jon told SBS Small Business Secrets while holding back tears.

“It has got me loving life again. And I'll always be eternally grateful for that.”

Jon Mitchell grew up in the UK and retains faint traces of a British accent. And it was his accent which brought him trouble early in life.

The former soldier had struggled with depression since losing his father as a teenager. A stint working in the outback Queensland shearing sheds was to be a turning point.

“I was working shearing sheds till I went into the army.

“And there’s nothing like working in the shearing sheds to toughen you up, because those shearers are a mean mob.

“Especially when it comes to bullying. I was bullied relentlessly because of my accent.”

As he grew older his depression gradually worsened until Mr Mitchell was virtually housebound. And that’s when he met Vanguard founder Luke Terry.

“A job for someone like Jon is at the centre of good mental health recovery, and it makes an incredible difference,” Mr Terry explained.

“I've known Jon for about 10 years now, and he took a few months to get the right start that he needed at Vanguard.

“But once he was successful in that first three, four months, he really flourished.”

Having a meaningful job has boosted Jon’s confidence and his health has also improved.

“I was on antidepressants for a fair while and my doctor has taken them off me now, because he doesn't think I need them,” Mr Mitchell explained.

Vanguard Laundry is one of 20,000 social enterprises in Australia. These are just like any small business, with one main difference. They have a social or environmental focus.

Vanguard is an $8 million world-class commercial laundry based in Toowoomba, west of Brisbane. Its purpose is to provide jobs and career opportunities for people who struggle to find work.

The COVID-19 Pandemic has impacted the region, with the Toowoomba council expecting unemployment, including JobKeeper recipients, to rise to almost 10 per cent for the June quarter.

However, some in the local community were already struggling to survive, including those living with a disability related to mental health.

Among all Australians, fewer than a one third of those diagnosed with a mental health disability find work, according to the Disability Employment Services Outcomes Report 2018.

“People with a lived experience of a mental illness really suffer from stigma,” Mr Terry told Small Business Secrets on the floor of the bustling laundry.

“So when you're going for that first job and you haven't worked in a little while, it's that issue of what have you been doing for the last couple of years?”

Since opening in December 2016, Vanguard has hired more than 150 people and helped 35 transition to the open jobs market or full-time education.

The Vanguard team is thankful for financial and non-financial support from the Westpac Foundation, which Mr Terry credits for its success. 

“Westpac Foundation has been one of our supporters from the very beginning. They were the first people to put in $100,000 to be able to build the laundry.

“And then we worked with Westpac to be able to get the $1.5 million of finance,” said Mr Terry.

The Westpac Foundation is a charitable organisation set up to assist social enterprises create 10,000 jobs by 2030.

“We received a further $100,000 a year for three years in 2017 from Westpac Foundation to get the right support, especially around the career and development support that we needed to make Vanguard flourish,” Mr Terry added.

State General Manager for Westpac Commercial, Queensland, Chris Langton said: “A job can change a life. What Vanguard has done, creating more than 150 jobs and pathways in the local communities, is exceptional.”

Like many businesses, the pandemic has recently reduced demand for Vanguard Laundry Services, resulting in temporary stand downs.

To help stabilise and sustain the social enterprise, Westpac Foundation recently offered Vanguard a further $300,000 over the next three years.

“Supporting these businesses is one of the most effective ways of breaking the cycle of disadvantage and strengthening Australian communities,” said Mr Langton.

Alongside Westpac Foundation, other long-term supporters of the laundry include AMP Foundation, Paul Ramsay Foundation, Hand Heart Pocket the Charity of Freemasons Queensland and The John Villiers Trust.

Natsenet Aradom is among those hoping to return to work as coronavirus restrictions ease. She arrived in Australia as a refugee from Eritrea 10 years ago, and then struggled to raise her two girls, aged nine and six.

“When I arrived, life in Australia was really hard. At the time, I was  pregnant with my youngest [daughter] and the elder [daughter] was also still young.

“It was really hard because I don't know the place, the language and what to do, even how to catch a bus.”

Since starting work at Vanguard, Nat has been able to afford little luxuries like taking her daughters to the beach for a holiday.

“Before I couldn't pay my bills … but now I can pay my bills. I can do [things] for my kids. It's really great for me.”

To find out more Westpac Foundation and its goal to help social enterprises create 10,000 jobs by 2030, visit