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Brendan Watson smiling to camera with his school campus in the background

Scouting for opportunity


Brendan Watson OAM has been shot at in East Timor, dodged tanks at the fall of the USSR and revitalised education in his community. While at times Brendan’s escapades have been dangerous, he says it’s all worth it to enable young people to follow their own paths.

If there is one thing Brendan could use more of, it’s time. As Principal of Catholic Regional College (Sydenham), Chief Executive Officer of the Catholic Regional College Institute of Training, White Ribbon Ambassador, and Chief Commissioner of Scouts Victoria, he gives freely of himself to others.

“The greatest gift you can give anyone is your time. Not because you must, but because it brings joy,” he said.

It’s a philosophy that’s helped him help countless others, first as a Scouts’ volunteer and later as a teacher and principal.

Change through adventure

Much of the time that Brendan gives his community is spent leading Scouts Victoria, where he has responsibility for 20,000 participants, their groups and programs.

As he found out early in his career, Scouts is not all surf camps and jamborees. It’s an organisation dedicated to serving others, sometimes in unexpected places.

Scout student talking to Brendan Watson

“My first time overseas was as an 18-year-old Scout Leader,” said Brendan. “I had worked with Chernobyl victims, camping with them in Australia to boost their immune system. On the back of that I was invited to attend a UNESCO peace conference in the USSR.”

The year was 1991 and the conference unfortunately coincided with a coup attempt and the start of the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

“The KGB were rounding people up,” he recalled, “so we camped in the foothills near Moscow to keep out of sight. On hearing that the parliament building was safe, we ventured into the city to get help. But as we approached the parliament building we were greeted by tanks firing on it. We ran for our lives. Soon we managed to get in contact with the Australian Embassy and were evacuated, unscathed.”

On another occasion, as the Australian International Commissioner for Scouts, he was asked to advise the United Nations on programs to help young East Timorese get back to “being kids”. This was after years of Indonesian oppression where children were taught to be warriors and fight for their independence.

“We were in a school one day and all of a sudden the windows started breaking,” he said. “Our Portuguese interpreter said ‘Quick! Put your scarves on and they won’t shoot you!’”

Scouts were held in high esteem by the locals – so putting on their scarves made them a less likely target. In the end, the shooters turned out to be bored kids taking pot shots at what they thought was an empty building.

His goodwill has also seen him work with Scouts to reforest areas of Nepal, help prevent child deaths in Mongolia, and push for local acceptance.

“We ran a project reforesting landslide prone areas in Nepal. The most powerful moment was dining with a family and them telling me their home would not be standing if it wasn’t for our work.

“We also ran a Mongolian Global Development Caravan in conjunction with UNICEF and Scouts Mongolia. We basically educated parents on child health and care – our work saw an immediate drop in child deaths and improved the lives of a whole generation. 

“When you spend time with people and communities, you learn what they really need, and then work together to make that happen.”

As a result, during Brendan’s time as Chief Commissioner, Scouts has opened Victoria’s first Muslim Scouts group; approved the Scouts participation in the Victorian Pride March; and invested in mental health programs for the organisation. The changes, he hopes, have created a healthier, more inclusive Scouts community.

Taking it to school

As principal of Catholic Regional College, Brendan approaches his day job by listening, serving and giving his time.

“When I started, we were a purely VCE school – but only 26 per cent of students were using their ATAR to go on to higher studies. The school wasn’t meeting the needs of the community,” he said. 

Brendan Watson and student explore the kitchen garden

“So, we adapted to the needs of our students. Twelve years on and the school now offers a range of Vocational Education Training (VET) options and  supports 16 profitable, student-led businesses – including a bakery, beauty salon, restaurant and picture framing business. We’re now one of the largest VET providers in Australia.

“Every young person has potential, we just need to find the right pathway for them.

“One of my proudest moments was about four years go. We had a Syrian refugee that was working as a gardener at the school and came to us wanting to learn. In Year 11 he couldn’t speak English. When he graduated he was dux of the school. He received a full scholarship to study biomedicine at university and is going on to study medicine.”

In 2007 Brendan was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for his service to Scouts. But for Brendan, none of this is about the accolades. Scouts and teaching align with his passions of giving back to the community, helping youth, and serving God.

“Every day I laugh and learn from young people. It is a privilege to be able to work with them. By investing in them we’re investing in ourselves and our own community. They are our future.”

Brendan won the Community Engagement Award in ACU’s Alumni Awards 2019. He graduated with a Graduate Diploma Religious Education in 2000.

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Impact brings you compelling stories, inspiring research, and big ideas from ACU. It's about the impact we’re having on our communities, and our Mission in action. It’s a practical resource for career, life and study.

At ACU it’s education, but not as you know it. We stand up for people in need, and causes that matter.

If you have a story idea or just want to say hello, do contact us.

Copyright@ Australian Catholic University 1998-2019 | ABN 15 050 192 660 CRICOS Reg: 00004G