Work to connect young people with disabilities and mental health challenges with nature has earned University of Queensland graduate Mathew Townsend a prestigious award.
The UQ School of Earth and Environmental Sciences Master of Environmental Management graduate is a co-winner of the Healthy Land and Water organisation’s 2018 Volunteer of the Year Award.
The award recognises Mr Townsend’s work to establish the Nature Freedom organisation, which helps young people with disability or mental health challenges work with existing environmental regeneration groups and offers inclusive outdoor adventure groups and career development assistance.
“We’re helping often-marginalised people to meaningfully access, participate and lead in environmental regeneration and beyond, by collaborating with Landcare and environmental advocacy groups and showing young people they can have fun in nature,” Mr Townsend said.
“It can be very challenging for people with disabilities to find their place in society, whether that’s securing employment, pursuing education, or fostering relationships.”
Mr Townsend, who was diagnosed with autism and profound hearing loss as a child, is a disability advocate, adventurer, environmentalist and sustainability champion.
He said creating Nature Freedom had given him a sense of purpose and direction.
“Now I can help protect our planet with hands-on projects, while at the same time improving the wellbeing of some of the most vulnerable people.”
Mr Townsend is participating in UQ ilab’s three-month Germinate start-up accelerator program.
“Being part of ilab has been an incredible opportunity, allowing us to really scale the work that Nature Freedom has been doing,” he said.
“The program is supporting us with $10,000 in funding, as well as access to mentoring and networking, education about start-ups, a co-working space, a cohort of fellow founders, advice from ilab’s Entrepreneur in Residence, and a pitch night with investors.
“During my time there I’m hoping to create the right infrastructure to collaborate with as many educational institutions, local community organisations and corporates as possible.
“Let’s nurture the next generation of young disabled environmental champions, because we need them now more than ever,” he said.