Fifteen years ago, Pav Cosmatos swapped a chef’s apron for a career helping vulnerable youth achieve their full potential. Now he’s ensuring the next generation of youth workers are there to meet Australia’s growing demands.

For most people, the leap from chef to youth worker might seem vast, but for TAFE Queensland youth and community work teacher Pav Cosmatos, it was a natural progression.

“The kitchen can be a stressful place, and ours seemed to attract a lot of young people dealing with complex issues and trauma,” Pav said.

“I was getting a little older and I was often working with apprentices and younger chefs. I always found myself sitting down with them and talking to them and helping them through some difficult times.

“Then one day I sat down for a chat with one of the guys I was working with, and at the end of it after I’d supported him, he said to me, ‘You should be a counsellor’, and it was just one of those moments that clicked.”

In 2004, after 27 years working as a chef, Pav hung up his apron and returned to study. After completing his counselling studies Pav was working at a community centre in Coolum when an opportunity arose to coordinate the Make A Difference (MAD) program. The eight-week pilot program introduced 15 to 17-year-olds who were at-risk of disengaging from school to various trades that might interest them as a career path. As well as providing the high schoolers with soft skills, the program also supported them across a range of areas in their lives.

It was a whirlwind he wasn’t expecting, with Pav visiting TAFE Queensland to discuss the logistics of the program one day, and running teambuilding activities with the first group of participating teenagers the next.

“At the end of it they had a certificate II, so it was always a pathway that set them in the right direction, but it was so much more than that,” Pav said.

“It was kind of like a safehouse for them. They learned skills — not just about trades, but for things like relationships with other people, what’s appropriate and what’s not, what the consequences are for certain actions — and they learnt about personality types, what type they are, and what vocational pathway that could lead to that would suit them.

“If you could see them from the day they started to the day they finished, they looked like different people — their hoods were off, they were bright eyed, and they had a purpose. We were so successful that we had no dropouts, which considering many of them were coming from having a background of truancy and being disengaged, was really something. Being a part of that process was amazing.”

It was this experience that made Pav decide to transition from a youth worker himself to a teacher that helped others enter the industry.

“I thought that the best way for me to contribute something to society would be to pay the knowledge and experience I’d received forward. You can learn so much behind a book, but you can learn so much more when you’re practically hands on,” he said.

“Youth work is about providing opportunities for young people and advocating for them in society with those soft skills, and teaching youth work is much the same. You are providing a place for people to come to so they can prosper.”

As the teacher for the Diploma of Youth Work (CHC50413), Pav now educates his students on dealing with complex trauma, how programs work, and how they are created and funded. He also provides the opportunity for his students to get hands on with a ‘community classroom’, partnering with local schools or community centres so they can apply what they’ve learned in a real setting. But the key lessons Pav said his students learn are about themselves.

“We often tell them to empty their cup when they come and just wait to see where the program takes them, because the majority of the time they create their own new narrative. I’ve seen so many people turn their lives around in this course and go from lacking confidence to being leaders.

“We just believe in them until they can believe in themselves. It’s like having your own kids, you want the best for them. You can’t do it for them but you feel like you’ve done something and that’s the reward."

If you’re empathetic and patient, and want to help young people overcome the challenges life has thrown at them to reach their full potential, a career in youth work could be your calling.


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