The Gold Coast Bulletin - Gold Coast Eye - - FEATURE - WORDS: DENISE RAWARD

There’s a touch of magic about Pre­ston Camp­bell. He had it on the footy field and he has it now, weav­ing his way through the crowds at Dream­world, cast­ing his spell on those in his path.

It seems the Presto moniker is apt at many lev­els as se­cu­rity guards, gate at­ten­dants, kitchen staff vis­i­bly brighten at his ap­proach, stop­ping for a chat, a hand­shake, to say g’day. He has time for ev­ery one of them, a quick check-in and that smile.

He’s on his way — via tigers, cas­sowaries and kan­ga­roos — to his lat­est ven­ture for do­ing good in the world, Presto’s Train­ing Cafe, a self-funded so­cial en­ter­prise at the back end of Dream­world for any­one need­ing a help­ing hand to get a start, not just in the hos­pi­tal­ity game but to a bet­ter life.

“If you asked me 20 years ago if I’d be work­ing in hos­pi­tal­ity, I would’ve laughed,” he says. “But it’s more than that, it’s bring­ing peo­ple out of their shells and giv­ing them the idea that they can do some­thing to bring about a change, to give them an op­por­tu­nity to bet­ter them­selves.

Af­ter his il­lus­tri­ous footy ca­reer ended at the Gold Coast Ti­tans in 2011, Presto was a nat­u­ral to move into com­mu­nity work full-time. He was a much-loved fan favourite, a foun­da­tion player who em­bod­ied the peren­nial rugby league lit­tle fella whose skills and pure in­stinct more than made up for what he lacked in size.

In 2008, he won the NRL’s pres­ti­gious Ken Stephens Medal for his out­stand­ing off-field ser­vice to the game. As well as be­ing an am­bas­sador for in­dige­nous causes, he had the X-fac­tor that ap­pealed to kids, grand­mas, hard-core leaguies and the busi­ness com­mu­nity alike. Peo­ple loved him; they still do.

The Pre­ston Camp­bell Foun­da­tion was formed in Jan­uary, 2016, a clean break from the trou­bled Ti­tans 4 To­mor­row char­ity. Giv­ing the new ven­ture his own name didn’t sit eas­ily with him — he’s not the nam­ing rights sort of bloke.

“Yeah, they had to bend my arm a bit,” he says. “But I can also un­der­stand it needed a draw­card. I have no prob­lem lend­ing my name to it now. It’s pretty spe­cial.”

He took with him his wingman from the Ti­tans 4 To­mor­row days, the ge­nial Kyel Dancey who fills in the fig­ures and finer busi­ness de­tails along the way.

“It started when we found out about a lit­tle cafe space at Dream­world that only opened some­times on school hol­i­days when it was busy,” Kyel says.

They re­ceived the tip-off from two of Pre­ston’s for­mer Ti­tans’ team­mates — “the god­fa­thers” Pre­ston calls them — An­thony Laf­franchi and Luke Bai­ley, also cham­pi­ons of the club’s com­mu­nity work with strong links to the busi­ness sec­tor.

Pre­ston and Kyel ap­proached Dream­world with a plan to ac­ti­vate the cafe as a train­ing fa­cil­ity, a self­funded en­ter­prise ded­i­cated to giv­ing peo­ple from all back­grounds a foot in the door to get a start in hos­pi­tal­ity and cater­ing. “Dream­world was fan­tas­tic,” Pre­ston says. “By March, 2016, the cafe was open, we had our man­ager and there we were, the two of us work­ing in it, learn­ing how to make cof­fees, tak­ing or­ders and mop­ping the floors.”

They laugh when they tell the story but, they say, it was im­por­tant to learn the busi­ness from the ground up. “And it’s been open ev­ery day since,” Pre­ston adds.

They took in their first train­ing group in March, 2016, of­fer­ing six week, non-paid, hands-on, sup­ported train­ing, lead­ing to a Cer­tifi­cate II in hos­pi­tal­ity. It’s de­signed for ev­ery­one but par­tic­u­larly those who might not fit with other train­ing pro­grams.

It’s now host­ing its sev­en­teenth co­hort — that’s 160 trainees through the books.

“It’s all about the small things,” Pre­ston says. “We teach them to make a cof­fee, learn some new skills. It’s the lit­tle things that make a dif­fer­ence for a per­son who might lack a bit of con­fi­dence.”

A sec­ond Presto’s cafe has fol­lowed in the Bris­bane sub­urb of Wind­sor, op­er­at­ing un­der the same busi­ness model, both run­ning with­out any gov­ern­ment fund­ing.

“It has to be the way for­ward for our com­mu­nity,” Kyel says. “They need to be sus­tain­able busi­nesses. It’s got to be about out­comes, not in­comes.”

Around 60 to 70 per cent of Presto’s trainees are in­dige­nous but the pro­gram is open to all.

The two re­count their suc­cess sto­ries: the so­cially-reclu­sive bloke whose mother rang to let them know what a big step it was that her son was get­ting him­self out of bed ev­ery day to be there; the young mum of six who, in her early 30s, just wanted to do some­thing for her­self; and the 65-year-old Malaysian lady who was left with no fi­nan­cial sup­port af­ter her mar­riage broke down. “She was a great mother fig­ure to ev­ery­one,” Pre­ston says. “And she went on to get her­self a re­ally good job.”

The events and cater­ing arm of the Foun­da­tion scored its big­gest con­tract to date dur­ing the Com­mon­wealth Games where, for 12 weeks, it pro­vided more than 29,000 meals at 11 train­ing and sup­port venues, staffed with its own grad­u­ates.

Now that the busi­ness model has bed­ded down, it al­lows Pre­ston to get out to pur­sue the Foun­da­tion’s other core work: men­tor­ing, ed­u­ca­tion and com­mu­nity build­ing. In a cou­ple of days, he’s vis­it­ing com­mu­ni­ties in the Tor­res Strait and Doomadgee and for the past three years, he’s been trav­el­ling to western Queens­land with Queens­land Health, talk­ing to peo­ple, es­pe­cially men, about health is­sues. He’s par­tic­u­larly pas­sion­ate about men­tal health, hav­ing waged his own bat­tle with de­pres­sion in his time. It’s a sub­ject he’s happy to speak on be­cause he knows just talk­ing about it can be the first step to some­one else seek­ing help.

“At the time I didn’t know what it was,” he says. “We didn’t have any ed­u­ca­tion or aware­ness back then. I didn’t know why I was feel­ing what I was feel­ing. I strug­gled mas­sively.”

It’s hard to imag­ine the like­able kid from Tinga, out­side In­verell in coun­try New South Wales, would ever have had a tus­sle with the black dog.

He grew up in the bush with “the land as his play­ground,” he says, pick­ing black­ber­ries, fish­ing, hunt­ing, swim­ming and play­ing footy with his cousins.

He was a prodi­gious rugby league tal­ent and, in 1996, was play­ing in the New South Wales un­der 19 coun­try side in Lis­more when he was scouted to trial with the Gold Coast Charg­ers.

“I was on the dole at the time,” he grins. “So I came to the Gold Coast to give it a go. It was a lit­tle scary. I did miss home — that’s all I knew. I cried my­self to sleep some nights but Mum and Dad talked me into stick­ing it out.”

He made his NRL de­but with the Charg­ers in 1998 and when the club dis­banded at the end of the sea­son,


he signed with Cronulla. It was there he was in­tro­duced to com­mu­nity work by his in­dige­nous team­mate David Peachey. “He was re­ally a leader in that area,” Pre­ston says. “He showed me the value of work­ing out in the com­mu­nity. I re­mem­ber at the time he said to me, don’t be sur­prised if you get more out of it than you feel like you’re putting in. I was only 23. I didn’t re­ally un­der­stand that then.”

By 2001, Pre­ston’s footy was thriv­ing. That sea­son he won the game’s high­est hon­our, the Dally M award, beat­ing rugby league im­mor­tal An­drew Johns by one vote. He should have been fly­ing high but in the off­sea­son, co­in­cid­ing with a change of guard at the club, he was hit by a dark de­pres­sion.

Ev­ery­thing suf­fered — his home life fell apart and the next sea­son, he strug­gled to find his magic on the footy field, be­ing dropped to re­serve grade and even­tu­ally be­ing let go.

It was on sign­ing with the Pen­rith Pan­thers un­der his old coach and men­tor John Lang that Lang recog­nised some­thing was wrong and made sure Pre­ston got pro­fes­sional help which turned ev­ery­thing around for him.

“I just tell my story,” he says. “When we go to western Queens­land and see the strug­gles out there farm­ers are hav­ing, it’s very dif­fi­cult to go out and say ‘keep your chin up’, so I tell them my story and hope they can take some­thing from that.”

When the Gold Coast Ti­tans got the green light to join the NRL in 2007, Pre­ston was their first sign­ing.

“I’d let ev­ery­one know if ever there was a Gold Coast team again, I was com­ing back,” he says.

He was a fix­ture in the Ti­tans’ line-up for their first five sea­sons, in hind­sight the glory days, daz­zling on the field and throw­ing him­self into com­mu­nity work off it. In a trib­ute to his leg­endary sta­tus at the club, in July, seven years af­ter his re­tire­ment from footy, the eastern stand at Cbus Sta­dium was named af­ter him.

“That was a bit a big sur­prise,” he says. “It’s not some­thing you’d ex­pect. I look at that stand and I see so many peo­ple who helped me to do what I did, start­ing with my Mum and Dad. It’s a great hon­our and a bit of a weird one.”

But, wait, it seems it might have been too early to call time on his footy ca­reer. Just months ago, at 41, Pre­ston pulled his boots on again to play along­side his ta­lented 18-year-old son Jay­den for the He­lensvale Hor­nets in re­serve grade.

“He was in my ear about it for two years,” Pre­ston laughs. “He talked me into it. I went to his train­ing and I got the itch again.”

He’s char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally mod­est about his on-field per­for­mances, paint­ing him­self as some­thing of a Cooper Cronk fig­ure.

“Let’s just say I knew how to get out of the way of the big fel­las,” he laughs. Spec­ta­tors would tell it dif­fer­ently. Cer­tainly it seems there are many tal­ents Pre­ston is mod­est about. On his phone, Kyel shows a pic­ture of an im­pres­sive in­dige­nous art­work that Pre­ston painted in his garage as a gift to a cor­po­rate part­ner.

“It’s good med­i­ta­tion,” he says. “I like the feel­ing of do­ing it.”

Per­haps then it shouldn’t come as any sur­prise that Pre­ston is still fig­ur­ing out what he’d like to do with his life. “Don’t get me wrong,” he says. “I love what I’m do­ing now, help­ing peo­ple and do­ing the work I do, but I still re­ally don’t know what I want to be.”

What­ever it is, there’s a fair bet it will prob­a­bly in­volve more good deeds — and a touch of magic.

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