Saturday, January 05, 2008

John Fitzgerald, by Rebecca Ovenden - The Gold Coast Bullentin - 5th January 2008

It's extremely rare for John Fitzgerald to feel unprepared or even out of his depth but last year he was both.

Fitzgerald who channels a large chunk of his property-derived fortune into educating teenage boys no longer welcome in mainstream schools had been invited to attend the Clinton Global Initiative, a mammoth event gathering 1200 of the world's most influential people in a bid to tackle the big issues associated with education, health, global warming and poverty.

Celebrity publicist Max Markson Clinton's representative in Australia invited the vibrant young Gold Coast businessman believing the valuable insights he had gained running his three Toogoolawa schools at Ormeau on the Coast and in NSW and Victoria would `offer a different take to the whole initiative'.

``Everyone who goes makes a pledge on what they're going to do in education, health, global warming or poverty,'' explains Fitzgerald. ``There were 57 heads of state, hundreds of billionaires, actors, Nobel Peace Prize winners, people like Ted Turner, Rupert Murdoch, Al Gore, the guys from Google and YouTube and ... they had breakout groups and I spent most of my time in education.

``The journey to get there was funny because (while in India) I read this piece in the Vedanta about there being `no progress without regression' and I thought when I do my pledge that's what I want to talk about but I was trying to think about how I could get that across.''

From India, he travelled to Africa for a bike ride to raise money for Tanzanian schools and while walking into a village one afternoon with a Maasai leader to buy food he saw a woman carrying half a goat.

``It's head and shoulders had been ripped off and he said `we have big problems with baboons here they just tear away at things' and I said `have you been able to control it?','' says Fitzgerald.

``He said `yeah' and told me baboons are really fearful animals and they're particularly fearful of snakes so one day they put a dead snake in a hessian bag, the baboon walks up, puts his hand in, pulls out the snake and then just faints on the spot.
``They got some spray paint, sprayed the baboon white and some time later it wakes up and immediately runs back to its tribe of baboons but the tribe sees this white thing coming towards them and they start running so for days and days he's chasing the tribe.

``I thought `that's what no progress without regression means' that it's great to make progress in your personal life or with your family or your business or even the world, but we've got to continually look at ourselves and ask the basic questions are we happy? Are we doing something that's good for all rather than just for us? And that was the story I was going to tell at the Clinton Global Initiative.

``I got there and why I felt out of my depth was because I just wasn't prepared. The education people were not so much high-powered academics, but they were very well researched and they knew the implications of education in all areas.

``People were getting up making pledges saying `we're going to set up 1000 schools in Africa' and `we're going to set up 500 schools in India' and we're going to do this, this and this and then the head of education said `John, are you going to make your pledge?' and I said `look, I'll be honest with you, I'll have to go home and think about it' and he said `haven't you got ANYTHING?' and I said `look, all I've got is a baboon story'.''

Fitzgerald, 43, who today heads Nerang-based JLF Corporation, a property investment and finance company which turns over about $280 million a year, is relaxing on an elegant cream lounge in a light-filled corner of his palatial riverfront home complete with clipped green hedges, trickling fountains, tennis court, pool, gilt-framed original art and the smooth curves of exquisite sculpture.

Sipping water in casual shorts and a T-shirt that reveal his perfectly chiselled biceps and calves, he describes his daily routine: up at 5.30am, an hour of exercise, shower, an hour of yoga and meditation, time with the kids before they go to school, breakfast, work (which might include time at Toogoolawa, meetings and site visits) home, another 45 minutes of exercise, dinner, book (usually an autobiography), bed by 9pm.
He is spiritual, disciplined and detached, a man who can instantly make you feel dishevelled, disorganised and directionless simply because he has that calm, knowing look of someone who has their life beautifully in order, a state that would remain unchanged even if all of this the big house, the shiny, expensive things that scream `serious money' were suddenly taken off him.

Could you live without all this? ``Yeah, easy,'' he shoots back.

In a box? ``Happily.''

In a box on a highway? ``Yep.''

Without air-conditioning? Fitzgerald laughs his beautiful laugh; the perfect white teeth and the crystal clear eyes are sparkling, the calmness and control fleetingly disappear as his smooth, tanned face bursts open like a sunflower.

``I'm one of those people who's self-competitive,'' he says. ``So I'll always work to better myself and the environment around me. You could put me anywhere and I would make something out it, out of anything. Put me in a desert and I'd work out a way to survive, or in the jungle and I'd survive and I'd enjoy the challenge of actually doing that.''

History dictates that what he is saying is true. At 17 he began working in Gold Coast real estate after hitchhiking from Melbourne in 1980 with nothing but a backpack slung over his shoulder, $200 in his pocket and a goal of becoming a millionaire by the age of 25 set like stone in his troubled mind.

Fitzgerald had `a true gift' for making money. By trial and error he developed a successful property investment formula and by 23 he had the million in the bank. At 26 he had enough money to retire and realising there was no purpose in `building wealth for wealth's sake' decided to commit some of his wealth to assisting homeless and `at risk' children.
Initially he provided residential care for them, but shifted the focus to education after realising a major stumbling block to them advancing in life was their inability to function in the mainstream education system.

Today Fitzgerald ploughs $800,000 a year of his own money into his three Toogoolawa (Aboriginal for `a place of the heart') schools and in truth, he had gone to the Clinton Global Initiative ready to pledge a fourth school next year, followed by a fifth the year after.

``That was the pledge. I just saw it as four, five. I just saw it as that and that. I thought if I can get that next year to $1 million and then to $1.2 million, that's efficient.''

But there he was, the lone Australian armed with his baboon story, surrounded by people pledging $50 million here and $10 billion there, people thinking `on a much grander scale' and suddenly he realised what he was doing was all wrong. At least, the scale of it was all wrong.

``I thought that if I had five schools I was doing my part, but I came back and realised it was not about me doing my part, it's about me pulling my weight and doing whatever I can, committing myself passionately to doing whatever I can to help these kids,'' says Fitzgerald who has a 14-year-old daughter and a son, 12.

``I came back and immersed myself in research on Australian schools and education and it became quite confronting because between 8 and 15 per cent of kids under the age of 15 just don't attend school on a regular basis that's 100,000 kids (excluding Aboriginal and Islander children) and about 35,000 of them are Queenslanders,'' says Fitzgerald.

``On top of that and even more alarming and connected are the number of violent assaults by 10 to 14-year-olds. There were 16,414 last year. There's one every 32 minutes. It's as much as adults, it honestly is. We've got a group of kids we're just leaving behind.

``I came back from America realising probably more than anything, that I'm in the position to ring the bell on this. We're at a good stage now because (Prime Minister Kevin) Rudd is passionate about his Education Revolution. So the letter I'm writing to him basically says `okay, love the Education Revolution but there's 10 per cent of our kids that we're leaving behind'. It's like bringing 90 per cent of our troops back from battle and leaving 10 per cent over there and there's nothing more un-Australian than that.

``I've named it the Silent Crisis. It's silent because no one seems to be recognising there's a decay of truancy, expulsion and suspension in these kids under 15, how it's related to violent crime, and how it's going to affect our society.

``Probably every classroom of every public school would have one or two kids on constant suspension or expulsion for destructive behaviour and I'm not blaming the public school system. What I'm saying is, it will only go so far.

``When I talk to politicians they say `look, our hands are tied because the unions won't let us take the kids who are destructive or potentially threatening' and parents at public schools have a right to protect their children from those sorts of kids and I understand that.

``What we need is another type of school. The Government needs to partner with groups such as mine because these kids need that sense of belonging and a different curriculum, an alternative curriculum.''

Fitzgerald believes he can lead the charge.

Why? Because over the past 10 years he and his team including eminent psychologists Ron and Su Farmer and the dedicated Toogoolawa teachers who have accepted massive pay cuts to work there have developed a blueprint that can be replicated to help these children. He can find the sites, he has developed the procedure manuals, he can train the teachers (he's already building a 300-seat auditorium at Nerang to do this), recognise the children who will benefit the most, get them back into mainstream school or a job and he has the profile and the money.

But to get the scale right, to make it more far-reaching, the Government needs to contribute.

``At the moment, for every dollar they put in, I'm putting in four or five dollars. If they match me dollar for dollar I could quadruple the number of schools I've got.''

John `put me anywhere and I'll make something out of it' Fitzgerald recognises these children have been left stranded in a desert, a debilitating place where the constant winds of anger, fear and violence have whipped their little minds to a pulp and the fervour in his voice suggests he will stop at nothing to ensure they survive.

It's 9am on a Monday morning and a group of Toogoolawa students file silently into a room in the school's main building, a quaint heritage-listed Queenslander sitting in the middle of a peaceful horse paddock, lush and green after recent rain.

Fitzgerald and several teachers join the boys in a semi-circle for a quiet, calming session involving meditation and a story focusing on one of the five human values of love, peace, truth, right conduct and non-violence central to the curriculum.

Later Fitzgerald reveals this quiet, peaceful environment is so foreign to the boys many of whom have been shunted between multiple foster homes (one boy is on his 38th home) it takes weeks to teach them just to sit still for 20 minutes.

Gently, softly, he leads them in meditation `okay, picture red, feel that red going through your whole system, now orange, a beautiful orange ... and yellow, as bright as the sun come into your mind ...' and the giggling and shuffling and fidgeting finally dies until the silence is broken only by the faint `click, click, click' of a student tapping his tongue stud on his front teeth.

With the boys relaxed `you guys did really, really well', smiles Fitzgerald, `well done, the phone rang and you still maintained your silence' Gerry, a former school principal who accepted a $25,000 pay cut to teach at the school, tells a story focusing on the value of `truth'.

It traces the life of a dyslexic Gold Coaster who managed to graduate from primary and secondary school and then, amazingly, from university, to work as a teacher without being able to read a word. Feeling defeated and consumed by fear for years, he turned his life around after he walked into a library in his 40s, burst into tears and said `I can't read'.

``I suppose this story shows us,'' says Fitzgerald, ``that when you feel defeated and are consumed with fear there is always something else for you.''

The boys are a motley crew whose outward appearance of young innocence the downy hair, the skinny ankles, the dimpled cheeks, the shy, downcast eyes, the little voice saying ` 'scuse me John, can I get a tissue? My nose is runny' defying the anger and confusion that stabs away at their minds.

One of them, a short, chubby boy with fluffy brown hair, had been expelled after attacking a teacher and had not been to school for 18 months before he rang Toogoolawa they have to want to come and must make the phone call themselves.

``No school would take him and it's understandable. It's our job to get him back into mainstream school. I'd like to say by next year, but it's probably going to be the year after.''

Toogoolawa, which has a long waiting list, takes between 12 and 20 students and works on a teacher-student ratio of one to four.

``We know the type of teacher we need has to have a spiritual connection that's so important,'' continues Fitzgerald.

``We need teachers who love and care for the kids and do it unconditionally because the kids will often vomit that anger, and vomit that fear and vomit that bile they have inside them and the teacher's got to look back and say: ``That's just a beautiful work in progress seeing Davey vomit and throw desks, tomorrow I'm going to sit down with him and say `Davey, we're making progress here', rather than, `you can't be at this school, or I'm scared of you'.''

He feels he can `connect with all of the kids' because he has experienced some of what they are going through and openly admits he could have ended up like them except that there was something ticking in the back of his head saying `there is more'.

Fitzgerald, the third child in a family of five (two older brothers and younger twin sisters) living in middle-class Moorabbin in Melbourne, was just eight when he went to say goodbye to his father who was getting ready to travel to his brother's farm near Shepparton.

They were out by the garage and John remembers telling his father that he wouldn't be coming home.

As his father drove away, he ran to his mother, gave her a big hug and told her the same thing: ``Dad isn't coming home.''

The following day his father was killed instantly when his car was sandwiched between two semi-trailers and driven off the road.

The only way his mother could cope alone with five children was to ship her three sons to the Christian Brothers at St Patrick's College, Ballarat.

In his book, We Can Be Heroes, Fitzgerald describes how he became angry, abusive and physical and on school holidays would `buy a bottle of green ginger wine (foul-tasting, but a cheap way to get drunk quickly) and go out partying, often coming home with lipstick, vomit or someone's else's blood on me. All three, and I'd count it a particularly good night!

``Mum tried lecturing me. She tried grounding me. On the odd occasion, as I put the key in the door at 3am or 4am (still only 15 years old), she even tried taking a swing at me. Nothing really worked.''

He was expelled from St Pat's for sneaking out (he did it 15 times before getting caught) to a nightclub and spent the rest of the year in a co-ed school akin to `locking a dog in the butcher shop' before St Pat's took him back to finish Year 12.

Says Fitzgerald: ``I say to the kids, you know, when I was 14, 15 I was angry and scared probably like you, but there was something ticking in the back of me that said `there is more, there is more'.

``I think I was angry and scared and insecure because after Dad died, being sent to boarding school, being sent away from home was the most frightening time.

``It was the days of the strap and I got the strap 60 out of the first 90 days I was there and I remember calculating that at this rate, over the next six years, I'm going to get the strap like 600 times! So what's going on?

``When you have fear, you have this deep insecurity and one way of dealing with it is anger because it's an expression that tells everyone `back off!' and it starts as a bit of a game but becomes something you get good at.

``It wasn't until I was 15 that I realised that anger wasn't a way to live your life and I expressed myself therefore with sport, yoga and meditation.

``It's a better way to deal with things internally and you realise that there's a pragmatic reason to even think, well, everything happens for a reason, and if everything happens for a reason and I've chosen it to happen, then this is potentially the beginning of my greatness as a human being and that's why at 16 after all the things that happened to me when I was eight, nine, 10 I left home and hitchhiked to Queensland.

``Now I wouldn't have done that had I not had all that behind me, had I been attached to living at home, had the security and comfort, so those six years were great preparation years. I wouldn't change a single thing. Even the fear.
``Education provides you with the options. You go into a (mainstream) classroom and say to kids, `what do you want to be' and the hands shoot up, `I want to be this! I want to be this! I want to be this!' and that's what education provides an opportunity for you to be something, to do something whereas kids who haven't got it, they won't see that opportunity.

``Ask them what they want to do and it's `oh, I want to survive until tomorrow, or I want to rob this or do that'. It's nothing about their future. It's about destructiveness. We just see that evolution from destructive behaviour to a constructive behaviour.''

Fitzgerald describes the case of John (not his real name) who was born to a heroin addict and after being taken from her when he was two, was shunted between seven foster homes where he was abused. He was expelled from 17 schools and when he arrived at Toogoolawa aged 11 and by then being cared for by his grandparents he had not been to school for three years.

``The kid was probably bordering on psychotic and probably for good reason so we said to the grandfather `look if you want John to stay with us you're going to have to be the safety net. He's going to muck up and we are going to send him home because he's going to have to realise there are immediate consequences'.

``We said `we need you to stay in the car when you bring him to school because if he mucks up you have to take him home'.''

The first day, John lasted an hour and home he went. Second day, one hour and 20 minutes. The next week he lasted two hours a day. Within three or four months he was doing full days at school, then he'd miss a day, then another full day. Within six months he was doing three consecutive days and within a year he was doing five consecutive days.

``He spent three years with us. He's a bright kid and we graduated him at the end of last year and he did Year 10 (in a mainstream school) and he's just finished Year 11 and we've got him some work experience at a courthouse. He wants to be a solicitor and that kid will probably make it. Great story and a great kid who I can honestly tell you, without Toogoolawa, would be in jail; absolutely in jail and in jail for a very violent crime.

``I'm not going to justify violence but he was violent for reasons that were possibly understandable because that's the only thing he'd known. He'd only known abuse and violence from the people who were supposed to care for him.''

Fitzgerald will open a fourth school his largest in Sydney next year and over the next three years will work on developing a joint venture with the Government.

Ultimately he sees himself devoting much more time to working in the schools.

``The business doesn't really interest me that much and it hasn't interested me for quite some time. I like it but I just don't have any huge business ambition. I've got thousands of clients who are on their way to building a lot of wealth (through his Custodian Wealth Builders Group) and I will see that through and it's really satisfying to see that clients who signed on to build wealth for themselves and now have 12, 15 homes are coming back and helping out with Toogoolawa,'' says Fitzgerald.

``I'd like to think in a perfect world, if I can show you how to make money and you do make money, a lot of money, that you'd put a little bit back. Some do, some don't and that's fine. It's fine either way.

``But there's one thing I won't do. I won't die with any money. I think the most disgraceful thing someone can do is to die wealthy.
``I'll die flat broke. I'll give it all away and therefore I'm just building the business to really fund Toogoolawa, to fund the schools, to open up the avenues so we can really make a dent in education.''