At a glance
It was a single moment that changed Emma Young’s life. Walking the streets of London on a freezing night, the accountant was confronted by the sight of a homeless person battling to survive the conditions.
“It really hit me that I was going home to a warm bed and some people weren’t,” Young says. That night, she began looking for ways to help people down on their luck and started volunteering at a winter shelter for the homeless.
“There were people from all walks of life,” she recalls. “There was one particular man, well educated and an engineer back in Romania, [but] he’d become redundant in the global financial crisis.
“He’d come to London looking for work but his qualifications weren’t recognised in the UK, so he was trying to upskill. He was going to classes during the day but he didn’t have anywhere to stay. “It really hit me that if such a hard-working, well-educated person could become homeless, the stereotypes were not always accurate.”
Young, who worked for News International as a finance analyst, became passionate about the cause. She realised homelessness “could potentially happen to anybody who has, for instance, health issues, a broken relationship, or loses their job”.
When Young returned home to Brisbane and took a job with a private software company, she continued looking for ways to help improve the plight of the homeless. She came across Orange Sky Laundry, an innovative start-up that was putting vans on the road equipped with washing machines and driers to launder clothes for some of Australia’s estimated 116,000 people experiencing homelessness.
Young was taken by the passion of Orange Sky co-founders Nic Marchesi and Lucas Patchett.
“They were told they were crazy and it was never going to work, but they kept trying and they didn’t give up,” she says. “They ended up being awarded 2016 Young Australians of the Year because of their persistence and passion.”
Young started helping the Brisbane-based service and soon realised the start-up needed stronger financial processes. “I jumped in and started helping with that,” she says. “I put all the policies and procedures and finance systems in place and created budgets and [oversaw] cash flow.
“I was doing more and more hours as a volunteer and eventually the CEO [of Orange Sky] pulled me aside and said, ‘we need a full-time accountant and would love for you to come and work for us’.”
It was, Young says, her dream job. “Everything just fell into place. It’s just meant to be.”
Young is now Orange Sky’s chief financial officer; a job she saysvaries day-to-day and also takes in human resources, admin and strategy. Like all of the 30 staff and 1000 volunteers, she still spends time on the road, helping to fill shifts in the vans. In addition, she is also one of five Australian Scholarships Foundation recipients of a 100 per cent scholarship to study the CPA Program in 2018, which will even further develop her finance, accounting and business management acumen.
Young says sustainability is one of her main priorities. “We have 24 vans across Australia and I want them to be running for as long as they’re needed by our friends on the street. I’m continually trying to look ahead to what we’re going to need to sustain those vans.
“They cost a lot to keep on the road and generally people are really keen to fund a new van – with upfront capital – but keeping the washers washing and the warm showers flowing can cost a lot of money.”
Young also has a clear view of her role in bringing new services to the community to which she has become dedicated. “The founders have 1000 awesome ideas and at one point I thought I would have to run behind them trying to put all the safety nets in place,” she says. “Now, I know I have to try to run ahead of them to try to pave the way for these ideas to come to fruition, while making sure our brand and reputation and credibility is intact.”
About Orange Sky
Orange Sky currently has 24 vans, and visits 170 parks and drop-in centres around Australia. It offers a mobile laundry service to people experiencing homelessness in the community, and recently launched mobile shower services in Brisbane, Sydney, and Melbourne.
The charity has plans to expand to New Zealand and the US.
“We wash about almost seven tonnes of washing every week, but the most important part of our service is not the washing and drying or the showers – it’s actually about the non-judgemental conversations we have while we’re out on shift with our friends on the street,” Young says. “We’ve had about the 100,000 hours of conversation and our mission is to positively connect communities.”