FOUR deaths in custody, bearing witness to families torn apart and the lasting impacts of institutionalisation have not been enough to beat Childers man Michael Small.

The former prison worker has spent his life educating himself and working to help indigenous communities in Queensland.

His interest in social justice was sparked during his time as a prison officer in Townsville.

"I went through the people dying in prison and I thought there must be a better way than this," he said.

Out of work for 18 months with an injury, he studied anthropology and archaeology before completing his PhD, with a focus on the Cape Upstart indigenous community and their view of settlement.

Mr Small went on to work in the area of native title.

His willingness to help those who need it and his pursuit of social justice has earned him one of Australia's highest honours - the Order of Australia Medal.

Mr Small was one of three Bundaberg people, including Bundaberg's Nina Higgins and Bargara's Frank Alcorta, to formally receive an OAM at a ceremony in Brisbane on Monday.

"Basically, I think the solution to every one of our problems is within ourselves," he said at the awards ceremony.

"We just have to help people to find it.

"I don't believe in holding people's hands, I believe in helping people to help themselves."

Mr Small said it was partly growing up with Aboriginal people and something in his make-up that helped him dedicate his life to the cause.

"It just needed the prisons and people dying and the sadness of seeing the destruction of families to set it off," he said.

Mr Small now hopes to set up a counselling practice in Childers.

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