John with Toogoolawa logo and boys

For most people, becoming a multimillionaire would be a feat of a lifetime, but Queensland based property tycoon John Fitzgerald knew there was more to life than just making money.

It’s fair to say the 55-year-old hasn’t struggled to make ends meet. At just 25-years-old, he rose quickly to the top of the property investment ladder and owned over $1 million in net property assets – he then started sharing his knowledge to help everyday Australians do the same.

But for the self-proclaimed ‘money making warrior’ it would take a humble challenge by his well-respected mentor to alter the trajectory of his life’s work.

“I was a 25-year-old ‘money making warrior’ that lived in a world of attachments and was very ego driven. Then a friend challenged me outright, ‘Well my friend, you know how to make money but will you make a difference?’

“That made me think about what cause I could dedicate myself to, and ‘troubled youth’ came to mind” John says.

So he met with well-known clinical psychologists Dr Ron and Suwanti Farmer.

“I remember scheduling a half hour to meet with Ron and Su Farmer, and there was something so disarming about these amazing two people that had no attachments.

“After 15 minutes talking with them I cancelled my appointments for the rest of the day, and we decided we would work with youth at risk,” he says.

John would keep his ego in check and stand back for now and simply provide funding while Ron and Su steered their first program for troubled youth. Reverend Bill Crews, who identified youth on the streets as ‘youth at risk’ (YAR) came on board and gave them a house in Ashfield. They housed and supported YAR there for 18 months.

John explains, “We identified that the missing link for YAR was actually education. To expand the charity we needed to move it to Queensland where we could establish a house and a school, so we needed to shut down the Ashfield house.”

In June 1989 they welcomed the first few students into the Ormeau home, 30 kilometres south of Brisbane, becoming an official not-for-profit charity by March 1991.

“Initially, we had Toogoolawa School set up for girls and boys but we found navigating through the issues of trauma and hormones just too difficult.

“As youth suicide statistics show boys are more likely to suicide by a factor of five we evolved the model to a dedicated boys school, not that there’s not a need for girls too,” he says.

With Ron and Su’s stewardship and principal, Gerry Maloney’s expertise, and John’s now active mentorship and continued funding, they established Toogoolawa School for boys.

Toogoolawa School: A school for kids no other school wants

For boys from 8 to 15-years-old, grades four to ten, who find it too difficult to function in mainstream schools that have been kicked out of maybe three, four or even 17 schools.

“When the boys start here we assess their literacy and numeracy fundamentals and develop an individual plan for them.They might be 14-years-old with grade one skills.

“So students can integrate back into mainstream school, or enter traineeships or TAFE courses we had to develop a strong ‘educare’ model to re-engage them,” John says.

The fluid, responsive and well-rounded life-skills program they deliver combines traditional curriculum with ‘educare’, education that starts with the heart. It includes mindfulness meditation, home economics, general communication and community interaction activities which helps fill the gaps for students that come from very dysfunctional homes.

“It takes about three months for new students to immerse themselves into the routine. We have quiet time each day, with mindfulness meditation and positive affirmations like, ‘We start the day with love, we fill the day with love, we end the day with love’.

“When the boys first come to quiet time they may have a nervous laugh or say, ‘What the… f**k!’ They soon see how the other kids are participating and begin to join in,” John says.

Most Mondays John starts his week with the students in ‘quiet time’, he also mentors Principal, Gerry Maloney, and gives general support to the Toogoolawa School community.

Unwittingly Toogoolawa School has given John an increased capacity for empathy and compassion, and it’s also a lens to view through just how lucky he’s been.

Role models: Teachers, community and volunteers

Role models: Teachers, community and volunteers

“We realised the traditional teaching practice of ‘talking to the kids heads’ didn’t work here,” John states pragmatically.

So recruiting teachers was trial and error, some balked at the challenges and felt they hadn’t gone to teachers college to navigate the general chaos of some days at Toogoolawa School.

An extreme example of incidents that can occur within this community was a serious car accident on the Gold Coast early in 2019. Three 14-year-old students were passengers, one suffered a broken pelvis in three places and two were put into induced comas and are still recovering.

“Our teachers are asked to commit to being an ideal role model to the boys of the five universal human values; Truth, Love, Peace, Right Conduct and Non-violence, and each social worker works alongside students at their pace. These two elements are critical to re-engaging students with education and themselves.

“We have a really good support network of community organisations, like the PCYC (Police Citizens and Youth Club). The Police also come in and talk with the boys, which is a good preventative for the boys doing the wrong thing,” John says.

Volunteers are trained to work with the kids, teachers and social workers. An invaluable part of the fabric is 82-year-old Tony whose been volunteering two days a week for ten years. As a retiree he lives a very organised life and so he wanted some chaos and mayhem in his life.

“One of our boys is quite autistic and initially mum was at school with him each day because he had terrible outbreaks of anger. When he’d have an outbreak we’d say, ‘Okay, you’ve got to head home now. Bye bye’.

“It’s his third year here now and he’s catching the train to school on his own five days a week. It may not sound like much but that is actually a massive milestone here,” John says.

Graduation day

Graduation day

Approximately 85% of Toogoolawa Schools graduating students take up further study or work. They’re equipped with life-skills, education, and a foundation to build their lives from.

“On their final day at Toogoolawa School we give the boys a graduation day. It’s pretty incredible, it’s emotional, and really is something to see. Each boy makes a speech, and it’s tears all around,” John says frankly.

Recently John had to call for a tow truck for his car. When it arrived John recognised the driver was a former student at Toogoolawa School 20 years ago, he attended for four years.

He told John he still practices the daily mindful meditations and positive affirmations that he learned at Toogoolawa School. He’s 32 years-old, married with a child, and employed.

“A university professor is preparing a white paper in consultation with Ron and Su Farmer on the Toogoolawa School educare model that in time may be used to inform government. I’m very comfortable with the model now, it’s been 20 years in the making. I’d like to roll out more,” John finishes.

John Fitzgerald has met the challenge to ‘make a difference’. Together with Ron and Su Farmer, and Gerry Maloney, he’s made a difference to the lives of over 500 ‘troubled youth’ who were hurtling at speed towards falling further south through the cracks.

John’s defining choice, and his dedication to making a difference will likely outshine his gift for making money. His purpose is clear, it’s Toogoolawa School.

As Dumbledore said to Harry (Potter), “It’s our choices, Harry, that show us what we truly are, far more than our abilities,” aka JK Rowling.

Toogoolawa means ‘a place in the heart’.

Toogoolawa School is an Independent, non-denominational member of Independent Schools of Queensland. For more information contact: Principal Gerry Moloney [email protected]

For other enquiries (Information on ‘Educare’) contact: Dr Ron Farmer or Suwanti Farmer (Directors of The Toogoolawa Schools Ltd) [email protected]

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Kerwin Rae