Former leader of the St Vincent de Paul Society Armidale Diocese - Donald Hewitt- is nominated for 2021 Senior Australian of the Year

PRDIE AND JOY: Donald Hewitt stands in front of the heritage part of Freeman House - the refurbished Crescent Guest House building
PRDIE AND JOY: Donald Hewitt stands in front of the heritage part of Freeman House - the refurbished Crescent Guest House building

St Vincent de Paul Society stalwart Donald Hewitt is one of more than 5500 people nominated for an Australian of the Year Award for 2021 - a record number of nominees.

While only about 130 people were selected as state and territory finalists, many everyday heroes were nominated by someone in their community or field of endeavour.

Donald is one of these people - passionate about his cause and making a difference - these qualities made him a contender for the Senior Australian of the Year award his nominators believe.

In a letter acknowledging his nomination Karlie Brand, CEO, Australia Day Council said this year the council had asked members of the public to tell them who inspired them, who contributes to their community, and who excels at what they do.

"You should feel incredibly proud that someone took the time to acknowledge you and to recognise your contributions to our great country," she wrote.

No one could accuse Mr Hewitt of not contributing to his community; the 81-year-old has spent the last five decades helping others.

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"I was born in Armidale, and I came from a Catholic family and have been involved with the Catholic Church for most of my life," Mr Hewitt said.

"When I was 27-years-old, I thought Catholics are brought up to either pray or do, and I'm a much better doer than I am a pray-er. The St Vincent de Paul Society was very active on the ground, and I joined them on decimal currency day - February 14, 1966."

Mr Hewitt's early work was in-home visitation when the Society was told someone was down on their luck, then two volunteers went and knocked on their door to help them with material goods.

"We were no good at spirituality; our job was to give them material assistance," Mr Hewitt said.

"We gave them whatever it was they were lacking that was making life difficult for them. That was with people who were struggling, and then we went to homeless people - those who had been cast out of their homes for whatever reason.

"That was for the first few years, and there were always people needing help."

In the late 1970s, there was a growing issue with homeless people sleeping in Central Park and the railway station.

"They were usually older men, and they were usually alcoholic, so early in the morning we would go around the park and pick those people up and take them home, clean them up and give them a new set of clothes and put them back on the street," Mr Hewitt said.

Mr Hewitt with a picture of the original Crescent Guesthouse which he bought for the St Vincent de Paul Society in 1978 for $25,000.

Mr Hewitt with a picture of the original Crescent Guesthouse which he bought for the St Vincent de Paul Society in 1978 for $25,000.

"At that time, the police used to go around and collect the alcoholics and put them in cells because there was nowhere else for them to go - and that was a terrible thing."

As part of the St Vincent De Paul Society, Don bought an old guesthouse in Armidale where the men could stay, have a shower, be reclothed, receive food and counselling.

"We bought the Crescent Guesthouse for $25,000 and had it declared a proclaimed place which meant the police could bring the alcoholics they picked up to us," he said.

Mr Hewitt, and a small band of volunteers, ran the guesthouse and gave those who stayed with them a bed, access to a bathroom, good food and new clothes. They also gave them counselling - in their own way.

"I am not a counsellor, but I am a human being, and I can listen," Mr Hewitt said.

The guesthouse evolved, and thirty years ago Mr Hewitt helped establish Freeman House, aiding those with addictions in his community. To meet growing government regulations, Mr Hewitt purchased two other neighbouring properties on behalf of the St Vincent de Paul Society and the centre expanded.

In 2015 the new $16 million Freeman House opened. It is now a thriving service providing support to many and is the only residential St Vincent de Paul Society centre in Australia.

Mr Hewitt still visits the disadvantaged or lonely in their homes, providing financial help and a friendly face.

While he admits feeling frustration at times, Mr Hewitt's belief in humanity keeps him going, and he says he feels enormous satisfaction in seeing addicts rebuild their lives.

This Australia Day Mr Hewitt says he will reflect on how lucky we are as a country and how well-led and guided we are by leaders who have responded well under pressure.

"The epitome of being Australian is Freeman House because us caring for others is part of the deal," Mr Hewitt said.

"And mateship - because we care for each other, and others, regardless of colour or creed."

On Australia Day Mr Hewitt will drive his 1969 Rover to Walcha with his vintage car club to participate in the town's Australia Day celebrations.

Award organiser the National Australia Day Council is celebrating all those who were nominated by highlighting other local contributions worthy of respect and celebration on Australia Day - the everyday heroes.

ACM, the publisher of this masthead, is the media partner of the 2021 Australian of the Year Awards, announced on ABC TV from 7.30pm on Monday, January 25.

This story A life of service and caring is recognised by community peers first appeared on The Armidale Express.