16 June 2023

Griffith karate king kicks off his own youth counselling service

| Oliver Jacques
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Frank Cirillo at his desk

Frank Cirillo says he became a defacto counsellor when he was a martial arts instructor. Photo: Oliver Jacques.

A long-time Griffith martial arts instructor has undertaken a significant career change at age 54, coming “full circle” in his life by setting up a much-needed youth counselling service in town.

Frank Cirillo, the co-owner of Riverina Martial Arts (RMA) and Total Fitness, which teaches classes in karate and Brazilian jiujitsu, now also runs Safe Space Youth Counselling, which provides one-on-one support sessions for both children and adults.

“When I was doing my HSC I wanted to work in social welfare, but I didn’t get the marks I needed, so I went back and did Year 12 again,” Mr Cirillo said. “I got diverted and started working in hospitality 20-plus years.

“I later got a job at a primary school as a teaching assistant. From there I felt a natural pull to work on a deeper level with the kids so I did a diploma in counselling and I’m in the middle of my degree at the moment.

“Last year, I started doing counselling in Therapies on Palla and … [then] at school I went from being a teacher’s assistant to student support, which is working in mental health basically. It’s crazy, I didn’t realise that I’d come full circle. There’s been this pull back from the start in 1986 to work in mental health, and it’s finally happened all these years later.”

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Mr Cirillo is a black belt at both karate and Brazilian jiujitsu, a combat sport based on grappling, ground fighting, and submission holds. He’ll continue to teach classes in both disciplines, having already coached many students to both state and national championship titles over the past two decades.

He said the fields of marital arts and counselling were not as different as people might think.

“When you’re a martial arts instructor, you somehow become the default counsellor. I often found myself talking to both the kids and their families about their problems.”

His life journey is similar to that of Griffith rugby league legend Andrew Fifita, who became a qualified counsellor after retiring from his sport and now visits his old school Murrumbidgee Regional High to mentor students.

Andrew Fifita with arm around Elka Miller

Rugby legend Andrew Fifita during his return to his Griffith school this year, with Year 11 NRL hopeful Elka Miller. Photo: Oliver Jacques.

The services of both men are much needed in a town where there is a chronic shortage of mental health practitioners, particularly qualified male professionals.

READ MORE NRL legend Andrew Fifita returns to Griffith school to mentor students

“There’s not many male counsellors working with men. It’s like male teachers, I don’t know why, but there are few of them,” Mr Cirillo said.

“You’ve got clients who will talk to anybody and there are others who will want to choose [the gender of the person helping them]. If being a male is that one thing that is going to get them to say, ‘Yes I’ll come and do it’, that’s great.”

While school-aged children are his target group, he’s flexible about who he’ll help.

“I’ve had lots of people reach out to me and I’m not going to say no.

“Almost all the counsellors in Griffith are booked out several months in advance; friends that are counsellors started passing on clients to me, so here I am.”

Frank Cirillo between four karate practitioners

Frank Cirillo (centre) has coached numerous national champions. Photo: Facebook.

Another problem with Riverina mental health support has been the high turnover of counsellors, with many moving here from other areas but then returning to their home city after a year or two, meaning clients don’t get proper continuity of care.

“That’s not an issue for me, I’m from Griffith and I’m not going anywhere,” Mr Cirillo said. “I see this as my retirement plan. This is something I can do until whenever. As long as people keep coming, I’ll keep doing it. Sitting here is a lot less physical on the body.”

Safe Space Youth Counselling is located at 61-63 Yambil Street. You can contact Mr Cirillo to find out more about what he offers or book an appointment, through his Facebook page.

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