Australia’s largest Social Enterprise Mental Health Employment Project has opened this year in Toowoomba, changing lives one wash at a time.

When highly qualified tourist industry executive and consultant Jan Knox retired in Toowoomba her objective was not just about living a lifestyle well earned. She wanted to contribute to her community. So she kept an eye out for the volunteer niche that suited her considerable energy and skill set. When Luke Terry, social entrepreneur, took on the role of Executive Director of Toowoomba Clubhouse in 2009 he brought with him a career devoted to community causes and in particular, social procurement.

Toowoomba Clubhouse provides employment and transition into the community for people in the region living with mental illness. This life-changing support leads to self-esteem and less reliance on Government pensions. First in Glebe, Sydney, then in Europe, and now in his present role, Luke’s dedication to the social enterprise model has seen his expertise and contacts grow in direct proportion to his contribution to the area.

Luke’s and Jan’s worlds became entwined during Luke’s quest for the means to take up a lucrative offer made during a coffee conversation in April 2016. St Vincent’s Hospital was looking for a solution to its laundry woes. They wondered if Toowoomba Clubhouse would take up the challenge of building a state-of-the-art commercial laundry to allow them to retain their considerable laundry requirements in Toowoomba. Tens of thousands of tonnes of dirty laundry are sent, from many sources, to Brisbane laundries every day. Why should not Toowoomba fill this need? And why not make it a philanthropic endeavour? The conundrum was the need for a laundry which was completely hygienic, using a barrier wall to create two distinct laundry management areas in a ‘clean dock’ and a ‘dirty dock’. There was no such facility in Toowoomba.

St Vincent’s offered Toowoomba Clubhouse a nine-year contract. All Luke had to do was find the wherewithal to build a commercial laundry within the parameters of the Toowoomba Clubhouse’s social procurement philosophy, and according to the most stringent of hygiene requirements.

He contacted his mentor and colleague Alex Oppes from Social Ventures Australia whose response was, “Secure the contract, I’ll help you find the money.” The land was donated by Hallmark Property Group on condition that the multi-million dollar laundry was constructed within two years.

Enter Jan Knox as chairman of the small board of the non-profit limited company Vanguard Laundry, fellow board members Alex Oppes, Jane Heidrich and Luke Terry, 54 ‘sensationally generous’ local donors (‘Partners in Social Change’), and $4.5 million later, the impossible was achieved.

In January 2017, the Prime Minister opened the triumph which is Vanguard Laundry, Toowoomba. Since then 23 employees, 70 per cent of whom have not worked for five or more years, are now earning wages and undertaking the career development Vanguard provides. Two have already gained other employment, while a waiting list of 85 people awaits the opportunities Vanguard presents. What an extraordinary achievement by a dedicated team and a tribute to Australian philanthropy.