CEO Sleepout Founder’s Mission

Last night, a thousand CEOs slept rough at Luna Park, raising money ($4m in total) and awareness for the 150 000 people who sleep rough every night. Nudie CEO, James Ajaka, spoke to Kochie on Sunrise this morning:

I had the honour of interviewing CEO Sleepout founder Bernie Fehon a few years ago. Here’s an article I wrote for Blue Mountains Life magazine in 2009. As you’ll see, the Sleepout has gone from strength to strength in the years since!

A Vision with a Mission

By Joni Leimgruber

Sometimes when we hear of a person’s plight, we’re touched by compassion and driven to do something meaningful, in a bid to help change a life for the better. When Blaxland’s Bernard Fehon heard about the alarming number of homeless people of Australia, he was jolted into action.

Bernard Fehon - Founder of the St Vinnies CEO Sleepout

Every night in Australia 100 000 people are homeless. Sadly, it is estimated that 34 000 of them are children. Spurred along by these statistics, Bernard put his compassion to action and founded the CEO Sleepout together with The St Vincent’s de Paul Society. The event has raised both awareness and money for the homeless people of our country.

Born in Penrith in the 1960’s, Bernard – or Bernie as he likes to be called – grew up in a family who placed great importance on looking after the less fortunate. As a child, Bernie attended Saint Nicholas of Myra Church on High Street and vividly remembers seeing the older members of the congregation sorting through second-hand furniture and putting hampers together for the poor.

Bernie decided to channel his desire to ‘help out’ by joining forces with The St Vincents de Paul Society and founding the CEO Sleepout in a bid to change the misconceptions surrounding homelessness in Australia. The concept is simple. CEOs from all around Sydney are invited to sign up and find sponsors to make a donation. Some email friends, others encourage their staff rally behind them. This year the CEOs were able to update their donation tally at the official website, so competition was fierce. The CEOs then sleep outside on a cold winter’s night in a bid to gain some understanding, albeit small, of what homeless people endure.

The first Sleepout was held in 2006, which resulted in 15 business leaders sleeping outside at the Telstra Stadium. Over the next three years, up to 40 people attended each Sleepout, raising around $30 000 in total.

Things really started to take off this year when 220 CEOs including Dick Smith of Dick Smith Investments, John Latham of Pfizer Australia and Tony Stuart of NRMA threw their support behind the Sleepout. Other ambassadors for the event include Linda Burney, NSW Minister for Community Services; Steve Martin, President of The Real Estate Institute NSW and Yvonne Howie, CEO of The CEO Institute. Ironically, back in 2008, the CEO Sleepout was homeless for a time, with Luna Park agreeing to provide a venue just weeks before the event. This year, the night was a great success, with over $600 000 raised and the misunderstandings of many changed for life.

Sitting down for a chat with Bernie, his compassion, humility and kindness are evident and it isn’t surprising that he has accomplished so much for people less fortunate than himself. A lot of hard work has gone into planning and implementing the CEO Sleepout, not least of all volunteering to sleep outside in the cold with only a sheet of cardboard, sleeping bag and pillow once a year.

“You sort of forget each time you do it,” Bernie laughs, as he remembers this year’s Sleepout. “You forget how hard the ground is so you go and do it again and halfway through the night you think, ‘I’m warm because I’ve got a good sleeping bag but far out, every time I roll over the ground’s so hard!’”

The CEOs travelled light – it was part of the deal. ‘Bring your own sleeping bag and a pillow’, the invitation stated. ‘Cardboard will be provided for you to sleep on – no airbeds are allowed.’ BYO food was also prohibited, with soup, bread rolls and tea or coffee the only food available. Alcohol was strictly off limits. For breakfast they had porridge and after a mostly sleepless night, (“There were four snorers at least so those four snorers slept quite well,”) the CEOs dragged themselves out of their sleeping bags, back into their business suits and off to work.

Despite the discomfort, Blaxland resident Susan Rochester said it was an experience many wanted to repeat. “Every CEO I spoke to in the morning was sure they’d be back next year,” she said. “You just can’t buy the feeling you get when people of goodwill gather to do good for a common interest.”

Entertainment was provided by a member of Empty Hands, a band of musicians who have spent time in the Matthew Talbot refuge. Other clients of Vinnies performed but the highlight for many was the stories shared by people struggling against the tidal wave of homelessness. One single father told how he was struggling to support his two school-aged children and keep the family home while being unable to find work. He shared about his struggle with depression and that it was only through the help and support of his children that he’d made it through.

Mr Latham was greatly affected by the story; “It brought home to me how any one of us are only one pay packet away from losing our jobs and our financial support.”

“We’re turning the world upside down,” Bernie says excitedly of the evening’s program. “There’s a bunch of business leaders sitting around listening to the story of homeless people – which is a very brave thing for (the homeless people) to do and very moving for (the business leaders) listening”.

Ron Browne of Blaxland has attended every CEO Sleepout and is proud of its humble beginnings in Penrith. “I primarily went to support Bernie in the first year,” Mr Browne explained. “And then, having interacted with some of the homeless people that Vinnies had helped get back on track, I realised that our stereotypes of a homeless person were seriously outdated.  Many are just normal people who have hit a hard time and just need help to get back on their feet.”

At the core of the CEO Sleepout is the philosophy that if both the richest and poorest sectors of our society are able to connect and understand each other a little more, that the groups in between will follow. An integral part of the process is to try and change the common misconception that says homeless people are in that situation by choice and that if they wanted to find accommodation they could. While there may be a small percentage for which this is the truth, Bernie believes that usually people are homeless because there is no better alternative. “I know people who have had to make the decision to leave a relationship with nowhere to go and they’ve gone to the Vinnies’ shelter with two little kids. That’s a brave step.” Bernie explained. “You might say ‘Well why didn’t they go to Mum and Dad’s place?’ but there may be reasons why they couldn’t do that.” All homeless people have their own tragic story but the most common reason for homelessness is domestic and family violence, followed by evictions, family and relationship breakdowns and financial difficulty.

As a financial planner at Tactical Solutions, Bernie often sees first hand the devastation caused by unemployment. People are now putting food on credit and delaying the hunger. Once that credit has run out, he says, there’s nowhere to turn. “The support you might think is there just isn’t,” Bernie said. “People at different times need help and I guess that’s part of the message I’m trying to get across.”

The vision for the CEO Sleepout doesn’t stop with Sydney or even Australia. 2010 Sleepouts are being planned for Melbourne and Perth to coincide with the Sydney event with plans to run similar sleepouts in the UK and US.

Through this event, Bernie has met some amazing people, many of whom are impressed by his willingness and hard work. “He’s one of those blokes who remember you and he’s always got time for a word and a smile,” said Blue Mountains photographer, Paul Cosgrave. “His organisational skills are clearly substantial and I think he gets things done because he’s respected on a personal level and he links so effectively with people.”

Dick Smith attended the event after being invited by The St Vincent de Paul Society and he urges other CEOs to get involved. “It is not just about giving money, as most CEOs are well off. It is actually experiencing what it would be like to be homeless.” He believes the CEO Sleepout is a ‘wonderful concept’ and that it will, over time, demonstrate to CEOs and others how fortunate they are.

Bernard ‘Bernie’ Fehon is a father to five children, successful businessman and the founder of the CEO Sleepout. According to Mr Latham and many others, this will be his legacy – and what a legacy that will be!

Money raised by the Sydney CEO Sleepout goes directly to The St Vincent de Paul homeless services in NSW which include refuges for women and children, men’s hostels, services for families and educational programs aimed at reintegrating people into society.

 For more information visit or call The St Vincent de Paul Society on 02 6202 1200

Inspirational stuff hey!


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