“There are many, many stories — only about a million,” said Wally Dethlefs, as he gently taps his glass of water and stares at the wall, eyes reflecting nostalgic thoughts. Wally Dethlefs has shared his story about working with homeless youth in Queensland in his recently published memoir, Just Compassion. Beginning his career as a parish priest, after five years, Wally took on a part-time role as chaplain of a youth organisation for Catholic schools called Young Christian Students. The program worked with young people to help them face life challenges and work to make the world a better place.

In 1973, Wally and another priest moved into Kedron Lodge; a painting of the house hangs proudly in his West End apartment. The lodge was used as a training centre for young students and workers, until Wally took on chaplaincy at a juvenile detention centre called Wilson Youth Hospital in 1973. Young people he had met there started turning up on his doorstep, homeless.

“Most of the young people were running away from violence at home, or had previously been in violent children’s homes or institutions … so we opened our doors to them,” he said.

Wally encouraged young people who were coming out of the centre to contact him if they needed help. Kedron Lodge soon became one of the first youth shelters in Brisbane. Wally’s experience as a chaplain at Wilson Youth Hospital opened his eyes to the horrors young people with no criminal records experienced inside the institution. Some were facing solitary confinement for days or weeks and education simply was not available. He realised that while he could help some young people in detention centres, there was still an overarching system that remained unjust to the majority who did not belong there. Rather than abiding by the system, he wanted to change it. “I wasn’t just saying ‘this is the system, let’s work within it’ but rather ‘this is the system; it’s a flawed system, it’s unjust, it’s unfair, let’s change it,’” said Wally.

Wally worked with like-minded people and set up a group called Justice for Juveniles. He was successful in introducing education to Wilson Youth Hospital and contributed to changing Queensland laws in 1992 regarding the treatment of youth. “I think it’s been a great privilege working with these young people over the years. I get sad when I read in the press at times, homeless young people being spoken of in derogatory terms,” he said.

Although now retired, Wally continues to share his experience by regularly talking with the Youth Advocacy and Youth Justice sectors. He also stays in contact with some of the people he helped and worked with years ago. In his spare time, Wally enjoys going for early morning walks and filling his outdoor patio with colourful plants and flowers. “We’ve got to have a compassionate heart, tap into their lives and realise that many of them have had some horrible experiences. Trust has gone for them and it’s important to build up trust again,” said Wally.