You’d think a decade travelling rural Australia with the ABC would be a pretty good way to get to know the country. Turn up in any small town and generally be greeted with open doors and open access. Ask what you like, get to know the place.
And sure, it was a privileged insight. But it wasn’t until joining the Foundation for Rural and Regional Renewal on a recent break-neck dash through outback Queensland that I really started to understand how a small town ticks when it’s under pressure.
The visit to 12 remote towns in five days was all about assessing the value of Tackling Tough Times Together (TTTT), a grants program helping communities during drought and funded by the Tim Fairfax Family Foundation, Yulgilbar Foundation and Aussie Farmers Foundation.
As anticipated, the trip showed the grants were largely working well, but perhaps more importantly, it also revealed the powerful results achieved when the right money is connected with the right people for the right cause.
That sounds like common sense, I know, but the more acute insight was how philanthropy is perfectly placed to actually make this happen.
Take the town of Bedourie for instance. It’s a small town on the edge of the Simpson Desert with one pub and a roadhouse. A place where it’s hard to find fresh food, and what’s there is expensive. Buy a lettuce and you wont be getting much change from $10. Heat, heavy drinking and fried food have been taking a toll on the health of Bedourie’s people.
But a health club has sprung up since a relatively small grant enabled the community to buy a rowing machine, exercise bike and some weights. The local police officer, who happens to be a fitness fanatic, is tailoring fitness programs for the locals who are now getting in shape.
A perfect case of the right money, project and people brought together by philanthropy. It’s working. And it’s not just improving physical health but mental health too.
Concern over health, be it physical, mental or both is a constant from town to town. There’s no doubt the financial and emotional stress of drought takes a serious toll, and any program that successfully addresses this makes an indelible mark on a community and its people.
Kids are the other big worry. Country parents are no different to any others, and they don’t want the drought to equal a loss of opportunity for their kids.
Actually, it goes deeper than that. Some parents are worried the stress of drought is rubbing off on their children, that they too feel the anxiety.
For the 55 residents of Prairie music is the remedy—a program called Dusty Melodies funded by TTTT. It’s a simple idea: learning an instrument helps ease stress. Plus there’s the added benefit that music is thought to enhance learning in the classroom. And it’s bringing the parents together.
The 17 kids of Prairie’s primary school have been learning instruments for the past year and are about to perform in their first school concert.
These projects don’t cost much, typically less than $10,000 so you might argue that a bit of local fundraising could easily rustle that up. But that would be to misunderstand the dynamics in a small town during drought.
Fundraising gets hard. Businesses and families are short of cash so the instigation of a new fundraising campaign is not always welcome. And anyway, the parents from Prairie primary have already been scrubbing the local public toilets in exchange for some council funds, and there’s a limit to how much more they can do.
Put simply, without philanthropy the kids of Prairie aren’t playing the piano and the people of Bedourie would be putting on weight rather than working out.
The TTTT program has funded nearly 70 projects like these. And they are diverse: there’s been ladies pamper days in Windorah, a botanical art project in Barcaldine and countless others.
This diversity illustrates another critical point, the very point that makes philanthropy so valuable.
Although every town is experiencing the pressure of drought, different people in each place feel it in a different way. A program to help needs to be tailored to the town, its people and their skills.
This is where philanthropy matters. It can be streamlined, it can be targeted and it can be tailored. Try getting any bureaucracy to deliver that. It won’t and it can’t. That’s why a state or federal drought relief program will not deliver what philanthropy offers.
These projects are run without fanfare, the dollars involved can be relatively modest and the results hard to sum up in a headline. Perhaps that’s why they are not as widely appreciated as the outcomes suggest they should be.
That’s no excuse not to recognise the success and generosity of the philanthropic sector—in fact it is the very reason it should be celebrated.
Cameron Wilson is a freelance journalist and former presenter of Bush Telegraph on ABC Radio Nataional. He has also presented The Country Hour in several states and worked as one of the ABC’s national rural reporters for radio, online and television.
Images courtesy Cameron Wilson and Alexandra Gartmann