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Steve Drakoulis: Westfield Local Heroes 2018

When Steve felt isolated, he formed a network for 1300 families

The $10,000 Westfield Local Heroes grant has enabled Autism Community Network to introduce a new Youth Club for teenagers on the autism spectrum, fund their Fit Kids program at Hurstville Aquatic Centre which enables children on the spectrum to participate each week in regular exercise activities and to continue to provide free services to the community.

Autism Community Network now supports 1,460 families across Sydney.

Doting dad Steve Drakoulis knows all too well the isolation faced by families coming to terms with a diagnosis of autism.

This was his biggest burden when his son was diagnosed as being on the spectrum.

“It was overwhelming. At the time you imagine all the worst-case scenarios because you can’t see what the future holds,” Steve says.

While he found easy access to information, there was little to connect him with other parents going through the same experience.

So, he volunteered to set up a group of parents and carers to meet regularly to support each other.

Since then, he’s left his corporate position to make spreading the network his full-time job. And over the past eight years, he and his team have established 30 more parent groups across Sydney now catering for 1,460 families.

As founder and general manager of the Autism Community Network, Steve manages most aspects of the organisation, from washing the dishes to training and supporting a team of 30 volunteers.

The network has also set up groups where children with autism can meet, learn to socialise, and participate in art and drama classes, music, fitness groups and playgroups.

“It’s important to surround yourself with people who understand, who are not going to judge you and who can offer acceptance,” says Steve. The groups are also a way to escape isolation.

He works more than a full week, but there is enough money to pay only for a portion of his hours. It’s worth it, he says, to see the transformation in people’s lives.

Steve says being voted a Westfield Local Hero is special.

“It means a hell of a lot. I’ve been recognised before and it’s always nice, but it’s never meant as much as this does. This is my local community. I’m blown away by the support.”

For further information on the Westfield Local Heroes program, click here.