‘One of Melbourne’s big characters’: youth worker Les Twentyman dies aged 76 | Melbourne

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The prominent Melbourne youth worker and social justice campaigner, Les Twentyman, has died aged 76.

The Les Twentyman Foundation announced his death in a statement on Saturday.

“Les inspired us all with his lifelong dedication to helping those in need and his profound contribution to our community has positively changed the lives of thousands of young Victorians and their families,” the foundation said.

The foundation’s chief executive, Paul Burke, said Twentyman’s death had been a “great shock”.

“It was only yesterday that Les was looking to find shoes and clothes for a family in need, and talking about flying to the US for filming of a documentary he had been working on,” he said.

“To his wife Cherie and family, we pass on our love and condolences and will throw our arms around them as they deal with this difficult time – we are all heartbroken.”

Twentyman grew up in Braybrook in Melbourne’s west. He spent more than four decades campaigning on issues including youth homelessness, drug abuse, prison reform and social welfare, working in Melbourne’s western suburbs.

Twentyman spent his early years as a PE teacher, a coach and player for the Yarraville VFL football team, and a passionate supporter of the Western Bulldogs AFL team.

When the Bulldogs made the AFL grand final in 2016, Twentyman spoke glowingly for what it was doing for the western suburbs.

“When you’re dealing with areas that are haemorrhaging with massive social issues around youth unemployment, homelessness, drug issues, gang issues, this is something that puts it all in the back seat,” he told Guardian Australia at the time.

His Back to School program aimed to keep children in education, and provides textbooks and other required materials. The foundation said it has helped about 17,000 people stay in school since launching in 1989.

“In life Les was never afraid to say what was needed to be said, he gave a voice to the voiceless and leaves a legacy of helping the disadvantaged and those in need that will live long past his extraordinary life,” the foundation said.

Vale Les Twentyman, one of Melbourne’s big characters. We were in contact just this week and he worked right up til the last. Thoughts and prayers to his family, friends, colleagues and all the people he helped along his road less travelled. pic.twitter.com/lUWigXBeN5

— Bill Shorten (@billshortenmp) March 30, 2024

He was named Victorian of the Year in 2006 and given the medal of the Order of Australia in 1994.

Bill Shorten, the NDIS minister, paid tribute to Twentyman as “one of Melbourne’s big characters”.

“We were in contact just this week and he worked right up ‘til the last,” Shorten said in a social media post. “Thoughts and prayers to his family, friends, colleagues and all the people he helped along his road less travelled.”

The deputy premier of Victoria, Ben Carroll, said he was deeply saddened by the news.

“During my time in the portfolios of youth justice, crime prevention and education he was always helpful, reminding me to see the child first and focus on the causes of crime,” he posted on X.

“[Twentyman’s] work in early intervention saved lives.”

In recent months, Twentyman had been working with director Rod Hardy on a documentary about his life.

Burke said Twentyman was a great man, and larger than life, and his work would continue.

“It has been an absolute honour to work with Les through the Les Twentyman Foundation and we will continue his work in helping young people to a brighter future and will ensure that his passing will not be the end of his legacy.”