Not only did the East Brisbane businesswoman and philanthropist’s work within the community and the health sector earn her a Queen’s Birthday Honour, she was also named the Queensland Community Foundation’s Community Philanthropist of the Year four days later.
One of the 108 Queenslanders to be recognised in this year’s Queen’s Birthday Honours List, Ms Vecchio was appointed Member (AM) in the General Division of the Order of Australia for her “significant service to the community, particularly to health administration, standards and accreditation, to education, and to business”.
Ms Vecchio was thrilled and humbled to receive the honour, which stands as a lasting reminder of her incredible achievements over the years.
Having been immersed in the business world for two decades, working as a CEO and being awarded the 2004 Qld Telstra Businesswoman of the Year, Ms Vecchio began to think that perhaps she’d reached the peak of her corporate success and decided to embark on another career path.
Ms Vecchio is grateful that she left the business world when she did, because her mother, a talented artist by the name of Romana Preston, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer shortly after.
“Leaving such a high-pressure job gave me the flexibility to do my own thing,” Ms Vecchio said.
“I started to do some property development which was very flexible and something that I had always loved, and it gave me the ability to be with my mother and family.”
In 2012, Ms Vecchio and her husband Phillip bought Brisbane’s Hanworth House and took on the mammoth challenge of restoring the heritage mansion to its former splendour in honour of Romana, who passed away in the same year.
One of Brisbane’s oldest properties, Hanworth House was built in 1864 and was home to Brisbane's first Portmaster for more than two decades.
A bank manager then lived in it before it was sold to a philanthropist by the name of Mary Marguerite Wienholt, who turned it into a hospice for impoverished women in memory of her own mother.
The Brisbane Theosophical Society eventually took over the house and in 1995, it was bought by the Anglican Church, which renamed it the Hanworth Home for the Aged and continued to accommodate only women.
When Ms Vecchio bought the historic mansion, she had every intention of maintaining its integrity as a safe haven for women to stay.
“Hanworth has always had a very philanthropic heart, so it was an opportunity for me to pick that up and take it to another level,” she explained.
In 2013, a fire destroyed around 80 per cent of the home, including many of her mother’s paintings which hung on its walls.
Despite this devastating setback, Ms Vecchio persisted with the renovations and Hanworth House reopened its doors in time for its 150th anniversary a year later.
Hanworth House now provides short and long term accommodation to an array of women, from university students to young professionals and women coming out of relationships who aren’t sure what their next step is.
An avid supporter of the arts, Ms Vecchio was also thrilled to open the doors of Hanworth House to new ballet dancers arriving in Australia for the Queensland Ballet.
“It’s a lovely environment and it’s a very simple life in terms of not having to pay bills or worry about cleaning the house or mowing the lawns,” Ms Vecchio said.
“I don’t really know what to compare it to...it’s somewhere between a B&B and a university college for grownups.”
Ms Vecchio also uses Hanworth House as a stunning venue for fundraising events, and aims to raise $100,000 a year for Queensland charities.
A passionate ambassador for Women’s Legal Service Queensland for four years, Ms Vecchio was one of 12 leading Brisbane CEOs to take to the stage in May to perform in front of 900 guests to support the prevention of domestic violence.
While all participants committed to raising $10,000 for the cause, Ms Vecchio exceeded all expectations, raising $70,000 through events at the house.
Ms Vecchio also actively supports Zonta International, WANTZ, the Ovarian Cancer Research Foundation in memory of her mother, and the Alzheimer’s Association in honour of her father John, who passed away from the disease.
Ms Vecchio’s humanitarian spirit dates back much further than her time at Hanworth House, and she has been heavily involved with Zonta International for two decades.
One of the few founding members of the Zonta Club of Brisbane Breakfast who is still a member to this day, Ms Vecchio has been to a Zonta International conference in Turin, a trip she holds very close to her heart.
During her visit to Turin, which fell in the same year Romana passed away, Ms Vecchio managed to set foot in the camp where her mother had stayed as a displaced person at the end of World War II.
“She was one of the thousands of Italians who escaped from Pula because they didn’t want to live under Yugoslav rule,” Ms Vecchio explained.
“I felt this great connection to the camp, which is now a police headquarters, and it felt as though my mother was there.”
Ms Vecchio’s grandmother, who will blow out 103 candles this Christmas, made the brave decision to leave their home at the end of the war.
The family ended up in Turin where they lived in the camp for several years before migrating to Australia.
When Marisa’s mother was 12 years old, the family arrived in Maitland in 1950 and gradually made their way to Brisbane, where they finally settled.
Ms Vecchio inherited her work ethic and drive from her grandmother, who is astoundingly active for a centenarian, and her mother, who worked at the Italian Consulate and EPT in the early stages of her life, and pursued a career in real estate later on, working virtually right up until she passed away at the age of 72.
“I’ve been privileged to have to really fantastic female role models in my family who worked their whole lives and never felt guilty about it,” Ms Vecchio said.
“It was a huge shock to us when my mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer because she was such a strong woman and she was very much the head of our family. Now I have Hanworth House as her legacy.”
Filled with Romana’s paintings and possessions which survived the fire, Hanworth House now stands as a permanent reminder of the avid artist and loving mother’s life.
The elegant mansion is also a symbol of Marisa Vecchio’s own kindness and compassion, along with her outstanding commitment to the community in which it stands.