The house Don helped build

The 14th of February 1966 is known as the day Australia introduced decimal currency. The day also marked a significant moment in the life of Don Hewitt who began an association with the St Vincent de Paul Society NSW that has lasted 55 years.

Joining Vinnies as a 27-year-old as a means of living out his faith – “I’m not much good at prayer, but I’m pretty good at action” – Don was recently nominated alongside more than 5,500 people for an Australian of the Year award in recognition of his lifetime of community work.

Among Don’s greatest achievements during his time with the Society was helping to establish Freeman House in Armidale, a service designed to support regional people struggling with addiction.

Spending his early years as a member of St Joseph’s Conference in Armidale supporting people through home visitations, Don identified a cohort of older homeless men who spent their time in local parks accompanied by flagons hidden under a brown paper bag.

“The police used to come around and they had no option but to put them in a jail cell for the night until they dried out, then put them on the street again,” recalls Don.

Making the decision as then incoming Regional President in 1979 to purchase the nearby Crescent Guest House for $25,000, a new Special Work – St Augustine’s – was formed specifically to support people struggling with addiction. The site was also designated as a proclaimed place which provided the police with a legal alternative where people in need could take a shower, enjoy a meal and find comfort in a new set of clothes.

“People found the comfort of the Society members and wanted to stay. Some of the best people who helped us were the people that we’d helped.”

Over time, the service was redeveloped with two adjoining properties purchased to offer additional programs, while funds provided by Vinnies and state and federal governments in the 2000s saw it transformed into a leading residential rehabilitation facility named after Cardinal James Freeman.

Today, Freeman House performs a vital role as the largest residential rehabilitation service in northern NSW. With the closest service offering withdrawal facilities located four hours away in Lismore and Newcastle, Freeman House acts as a haven offering long-term drug and alcohol rehabilitation, crisis accommodation, inpatient treatment, aftercare support and programs to accommodate patients with young children.

While much has changed at Freeman House over the past four decades, Don’s original intent of providing a supportive environment for people struggling with addiction remains as strong as ever.

“Whenever people set foot in Freeman House for the very first time, they’re on the road for success. Their efforts to get into Freeman House is a step in the right direction.”

Thanks to the support of donors like you, Freeman House has been able to help 875 adults over the past decade address addiction and rebuild their lives.