CUP OF LIFE
ONE OF THE GOLD COAST’S FAVOURITE SONS IS STILL SERVING THE COMMUNITY — AND A PRETTY MEAN CUP OF COFFEE
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,
“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.”
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.