ACSO was started by a man called Stan McCormack (1983) who served a number of years in Pentridge prison for armed robbery.
While Stan was in prison, he underwent a spiritual conversion. There were always people in his cell wanting to talk or needing advice. He was also operating the Salvation Army’s “Epistle” magazine. When he was released, he created “the Epistle Centre, a support service for people making the transition out of prison .”
Stan received some money from a volunteer to buy a property in Fitzroy. (1983) He used this as a drop- in centre and he lived there. He was a charismatic person, and soon gathered a group of about 30 volunteers.
In 1983, I was working in the travel industry, and feeling a bit disenchanted with it. I was introduced to Stan and was so taken with his vision that I offered my services in administration and helped him develop a Council.
Alistair Nicholson, who was then Justice of the Supreme Court and Head of the Adult Parole Board was approached and he agreed to become our Chairman and the Council was established in 1983. He believed in us and has been a wonderful support over the years. He was later appointed to the Family Court and has now retired and is our Patron.
Fortunately I’d sold a house and was a bit flush with money so I could afford to work for a few months without being paid.
On one occasion Stan said to me: “What are you like with risk taking?” and then said “If I offered you a job and said I could only pay you expenses but that I knew we’d get funding to pay you in the next few months, what would you say?”I’d said “I’ll start next Monday,” which I did.
Shortly after that Tony Calabrò came on board as the Administrator to give a bit of structure to the place, which he was very good at. (1986) At that stage, we were living entirely on donations but as volunteers we were so enthusiastic and so hopeful. Our hope was reinforced, in that so often, Stan would say “we’d better say our prayers, the mortgage is due but we have no money to pay it.” Yet time and time again the day before it was due we’d receive a cheque that would just cover it.
That reinforced our sense that we were on the right path and we were being protected in a way - that it was all meant to be. That’s how it was in the early days.
Finally that day came when we got some funding, $3000 from Pauline Toner. (1986) We felt we were on our way and we knew we could make it.
Stan McCormack left in 1986 as he got married and needed a break, so at that stage there was Tony, I and then Sr. Clare McShee came on board about 6 months later.
Next we were approached by SAAP (Supported Accommodation and Assistance Programme) who funded us to establish what became known as McCormack House. (1987) That was a property made up of two houses separated by a wall, which we knocked out to provide office space also. We could then house 13 residents, and we took everyone who came out of prison, as there was little other housing, which accommodated people from prisons. We were taking people with psychiatric disorders, intellectual disabilities, sex offenders, general offenders and so on. There was such a big mix of different groups with different needs and this created tension between people.
Then Tony heard funding was available for people with intellectual disabilities, and so we were able to start up a house with this special purpose, Francis House and gradually that programme got a good name and started to grow. (1989)
Next, a person was being released from prison who had psychiatric problems and who was threatening to commit a massacre when he got out. This brought the issue to the fore of people being released from prison who presented a danger to the community yet there were no solutions available. So we approached government, again offering to provide help in this area, and ended up getting a worker and a car for a Mental Health Outreach Programme. (1996).
A concern developed under the Kennett government, about the numbers of people being released from prisons and psychiatric hospitals with drug and alcohol issues yet unable to get treatment. So for the first time, an agency would be set up that would assess the needs of clients with drug and alcohol issues and broker treatment for them. We tendered for this new programme and were successful. So the COATS programme (Community Offender Advice and Treatment Service) was established (1997) and currently assesses thousands of clients per year and gives them access to treatment.
Soon after, ACSO’s Employment Directions programme was established,(1998) which now comprises several components including job Network, Personal Support Program, Disability Employment and Job Capacity Assessments, it is now called Vitality Personnel.
I remember the day Tony asked me if I’d like to be Manager of McCormack House and I’d said that I’d love to. There was another wonderful person at that time, Len Reynolds who had been in prison for a number of years. He had totally turned his life around and was a great example to others, and because he’d served 22 years and had made a success of his life since his release, there was great respect for him from all the clients.
Although the house was only staffed during the day, Len was good at picking up when problems were brewing. At these times he would sometimes go home and come back in the middle of the night. One night it was a resident’s birthday so they’d brought in girls from the brothel down the road, along with plenty of grog, which was forbidden. Eventually neighbours complained about the noise, Len managed to locate a naked tattooed woman in the wardrobe and everyone was evicted.
Whilst there were very firm rules, it was quite casual and unstructured then. Sometimes when tea was ready I would just walk down to the local pub and yell out “tea’s ready!” around the door. Then half the pub would walk out.
I miss the early days when ACSO was small, with all its excitement and simplicity. But I look at it this way: we can help so many more people now.
Whilst there have been so many changes, I know the original spirit of ACSO is still here.
Chris Cappello began with ACSO in 1983 as a volunteer and then as a founding member of the staff team and council. Her passion for consumers still shines through and she now runs the ACSO Consumer Advisory Group – where consumers play an active role in helping review programs and services as well as making a strong contribution to policy and research at ACSO.