Off Topic and on the record, as we let South Australian identities talk about whatever they want... as long as it’s not their day job. Before discovering dance, which would eventually lead Garry Stewart to Adelaide to become Artistic Director of the Australian Dance Theatre, Stewart was looking forward to a career as a social worker.
“I left home when I was 15 and put myself through year 11 and 12 and I had a bit of assistance from a social worker,” Stewart, who studied social work at the University of NSW, explained. “Because of her I decided I wanted to be a social worker. But then I discovered dance, which really was from left of field and I had a really strong response to dance. So I became obsessed with dance and started full time dance classes.
“While I was at the University of NSW I had a live-in job with the Deaf Society of NSW. It was just assisting during meal times, being a friend to the residents and interpreting the news, so I learnt a bit of sign language. Around the same time, I was a volunteer for an organisation fronted by the St Vincent de Paul called Taskforce. Taskforce served the centre of Sydney and inner city suburbs like Redfern and Surrey Hills back in the early 80s when those areas were quite hardcore, and The Cross as well. People would ring a hotline during the day, as they might need food, clothing, furniture or whatever they required. In the evening we had a list of people to visit and we’d go to their house, assess their needs and then write them a voucher to help them get through some sort of emergency situation. Usually it was a need for food. Of course you occasionally came across junkies who only wanted cash, that’s why we only gave out vouchers for food, clothes, furniture and items that would answer a particular need, we would never give them cash.”
Stewart also volunteered for Hands On during the Sydney AIDS crisis.
“In 1990 I snapped a ligament in my knee and had to take a year off, so one of the things I learnt was remedial massage. I used to do voluntary massage for an organisation called Hands On, which provided massage for people living with HIV and AIDS. Most of the people I saw were at St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney, which was ground zero for the AIDS crisis in Sydney. I did that for about 18 months. It was hard going emotionally. It was really hard. It was a difficult time in Sydney. I was just one of many people trying to contribute and help during a really awful health crisis.”
To put himself through Australian Ballet School, Stewart did some nursing assistance work.
“I went to this nursing home and in a room by himself was this young guy, probably mid-20s, who was completely paralysed and couldn’t speak, couldn’t feed himself but was completely aware of his surroundings and what was happening. His room was filled with Madonna posters and dance music was playing and I wondered what had happened to him and why he was in a nursing home. I was told he was gay and had come out to his parents. His parents had a negative reaction to that so he took an overdose but it didn’t kill him. He survived and it caused irreparable brain damage, so he ended up in a nursing home. At that point I learnt there actually weren’t any care facilities for a young person suffering from that kind of neurological damage. Across Australia there are 6000 young people in nursing homes. Youngcare’s an organisation that wants to get those young people out of nursing homes and into facilities with other young people; not only for social reasons but nursing homes don’t necessarily have the ability to care for these people.
“They require 24-hour attention and there’s nowhere else for them to go but nursing homes, so they are amongst people... the average age of a person in a nursing home is 86, and these people are in their late teens, 20s and 30s, so Youngcare tries to provide support for carers but also to establish actual residences, bricks and mortar residences, for young people with these severe problems to get them out of nursing homes.”
Stewart is looking to hold a Youngcare (which is a national organisation) fundraiser/event in the final half of 2013, hopefully at a theatre such as the Adelaide Festival Centre.
“I’ve spoken to Youngcare and said that I’d like to do a fundraiser and would be interested to look at raising funds to at least begin a South Australian strategy for developing a residence and providing some kind of support for carers.”
Photo: © Chris Herzfeld Camlight Productions