Hooked on ad­ven­ture

From civil war in Ethiopia to tsunami-rav­aged Aceh, one woman is on a mis­sion to help

Central and North Burnett Times - - LIFE STARS - BY Damian Bathersby

MICHELE Lip­ner can clearly re­mem­ber when she first be­came hooked on ad­ven­ture.

It was 1991 and with a new de­gree in so­ci­ol­ogy un­der her belt, she trav­elled from her home in Columbia, Mis­souri, to Ethiopia as part of a pro­gram help­ing the coun­try’s cat­tle, sheep and goat pro­duc­ers.

Ethiopia was en­gulfed in a civil war and within a month of Michele’s ar­rival, tanks were rolling into Ad­dis Ababa as the long-time Marx­ist regime and its mas­sive army was over­thrown.

“I re­mem­ber call­ing my mother be­cause she thought I had evac­u­ated to Kenya dur­ing all of this,” Michele re­calls.

“It’s prob­a­bly the wrong thing to say to your mother but I rang her and said ‘If any­thing hap­pens to me it’s okay be­cause it’s the first time in my life I feel like I’m alive and liv­ing’.”

She stayed in the trou­bled coun­try for 12 months but the ex­pe­ri­ence had ig­nited a pas­sion for hu­man­i­tar­ian work that con­tin­ues to this day.

Now liv­ing on the Sun­shine Coast, Michele’s days of international hu­man­i­tar­ian work are be­hind her and her en­ergy is fo­cused on a com­mu­nity pro­gram dis­tribut­ing ex­cess food to peo­ple in need.

It’s a far cry from post-con­flict Kosovo and Afghanistan where she found her­self over the 15 years fol­low­ing her time in Ethiopia.

First was a post­ing to the Repub­lic of Ge­or­gia, af­ter the break-up of the for­mer Soviet Union, where she helped run post-con­flict re­cov­ery pro­grams, par­tic­u­larly fo­cus­ing on train­ing lo­cal doc­tors and healthcare pro­fes­sion­als.

Af­ter Ar­me­nia, came Kosovo, where she ran a $20 mil­lion as­sis­tance pro­gram for US AID and helped deal with eth­nic con­flicts.

Nine months af­ter the 9/11 bomb­ings stunned the world, she was posted to north­ern Afghanistan where she was the UN’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive in a re­gion where lo­cal war­lords were of­ten in con­flict with one another.

“I was one of the re­gional co-or­di­na­tors of the UN mis­sions in Afghanistan – one of eight work­ing there from 2002–2004 – af­ter the US bomb­ings,” she ex­plains.

“The UN has this peace-keep­ing mech­a­nism. It’s not just about blue hel­mets – it’s a whole civil­ian side of peace-keep­ing as well where you come in with a group of spe­cial­ists and gen­er­al­ists.

“It’s a whole pro­gram that works in con­cert with the gov­ern­ment to help move coun­tries com­ing out of con­flict into peace and sta­bil­ity – eco­nomic and so­cial sta­bil­ity.

“These peace-keep­ing mis­sions are usu­ally a com­bi­na­tion of civil­ian and mil­i­tary per­son­nel who go into coun­tries when con­flicts are end­ing.

“I was the head of one of the re­gional of­fices and there to sup­port the over­all mis­sion in Afghanistan, in the north­ern part of the coun­try.”

It was while she was in Afghanistan that she met her fu­ture hus­band, Lt Colonel Chris Mead.

The UN mis­sion had eight international mil­i­tary ad­vis­ers to ad­vise on mil­i­tary is­sues and Chris was de­ployed as Aus­tralia’s sole mil­i­tary pres­ence in Afghanistan.

“There were no of­fi­cial UN troops on the ground at the time. He was sec­onded to the UN Mis­sion by the Aus­tralian Gov­ern­ment. He wore the Aus­tralian Army uni­form and a blue beret de­not­ing his role as a UN ad­vi­sor,” Michele ex­plains.

“We were hav­ing a lot of trou­ble with the war­lords – peo­ple were get­ting killed and we were get­ting caught in the cross­fire – so he was one of two mil­i­tary ad­vis­ers de­ployed up there to try to help ne­go­ti­ate lo­cal peace set­tle­ments with the war­lords and help deal with all the fight­ing.”

Michele and Chris fell in love and in late 2004 she moved to Aus­tralia to be with him in Can­berra. But she didn’t stay still for long. Soon af­ter her ar­rival, the Box­ing Day tsunami hit, killing more than 230,000 peo­ple in 14 coun­tries.

Within months, Michele was in In­done­sia’s Aceh Prov­ince with the UN, as its role moved from emer­gency re­lief to hu­man­i­tar­ian work.

It was only a four-month de­ploy­ment but within a mat­ter of weeks she had another life-chang­ing ex­pe­ri­ence when the re­gion was hit by a sec­ond ma­jor quake.

“Many peo­ple don’t even re­mem­ber the sec­ond quake hap­pened,” she says.

“The first quake that caused the tsunami was a 9.7, which is un­heard of.

“The sec­ond one, in March, was about an 8.3 and I was in the mid­dle of that.

“I’m from Cal­i­for­nia and I thought when I went to Aceh Prov­ince that I knew all about earth­quakes … then I got caught up in an 8-plus earth­quake and it was ter­ri­fy­ing.

“I felt pretty over­whelmed, to the point where I was pretty trau­ma­tised. I had never done emer­gency re­sponse.

“I would go to sleep with clothes on and a glass of wa­ter be­side the bed be­cause I would wake up in the mid­dle of the night not know­ing if I was mov­ing or if the room was mov­ing and the only way I could tell was if I looked at the wa­ter in the glass.

“I’ve of­ten said since then ‘give me war­lords any day over a nat­u­ral dis­as­ter’ – you can ne­go­ti­ate with a war­lord but you can’t with nature.”

Michele re­turned to Can­berra and Chris but soon re­alised she was suf­fer­ing post trau­matic stress.

In her words she even­tu­ally “got over it”, but the ex­pe­ri­ence made her ques­tion her abil­i­ties for the first time.

“Up to that point I think that ev­ery­thing I did, I did in­tu­itively and I grew and I learned and I got bet­ter,” she says.

“Now the whole international aid and devel­op­ment is fo­cused on train­ing peo­ple in ad­vance and giv­ing them the nec­es­sary skills but when I started in the early 90s – I started out in international aid and devel­op­ment as a coun­try co-or­di­na­tor for Save The Chil­dren. I grew as I went along do­ing all these type of things.

“So I had a lot of self doubt and I still have a lot of self doubt – I should have done this more and I should have done that.

“But I am proud that I can re­flect on mo­ments that I know I made a dif­fer­ence.

“And if I know I made a dif­fer­ence in one per­son’s life, it’s worth it.”

Af­ter re­turn­ing to Aus­tralia, Michele took on some con­sul­tancy work and co-or­di­nated the for­mu­la­tion of a doc­u­ment that de­tailed best prac­tice for civil­ian and mil­i­tary per­son­nel work­ing side-by-side in con­flict ar­eas and emer­gen­cies over­seas. Same Space, Dif­fer­ent Man­dates, which she de­scribes as her “proud­est achieve­ment”, is now recog­nised as a de­fin­i­tive guide to best prac­tice and is taken into the field by mil­i­tary and civil­ian per­son­nel.

Michele and Chris moved to the Sun­shine Coast in 2010 and with Chris con­tin­u­ing to work for the army and her most re­cent con­sul­tancy near­ing an end, Michele looked for a new chal­lenge.

She’d heard of an or­gan­i­sa­tion called OzHar­vest – a na­tional food res­cue pro­ject that dis­trib­utes ex­cess food to the needy.

It’s re­gional arm is called REAP and it’s into that or­gan­i­sa­tion Michele has di­rected her pas­sion for mak­ing a dif­fer­ence in the world.

“We res­cue ex­cess good food that might oth­er­wise go to land­fill for any num­ber of rea­sons – ex­cess, not be­ing able to be sold be­cause of over­stock­ing, sec­onds and some­times just be­cause they don’t look good,” she ex­plains.

“The re­al­ity is that a lot of the pub­lic is used to buy­ing fruit and veg­eta­bles that look a cer­tain way and if some­thing doesn’t look that way it is vis­ually un­ap­peal­ing and there­fore there is a no­tion the food is not good or won’t taste as good. “So it is re­ally hard for busi­nesses to sell those prod­ucts. “I have a pic­ture on my phone of a bent ba­nana, that looks like a V.

“Most peo­ple think of a ba­nana as be­ing shaped like a ba­nana and so if you see some­thing that doesn’t look like the prod­uct, it is far harder to sell.

I’ve of­ten said since then ‘give me war­lords any day over a nat­u­ral dis­as­ter’ – you can ne­go­ti­ate with a war­lord but you can’t with nature.

“If you have big toma­toes that have big in­den­ta­tions in them or slight bruis­ing – they are still very good, still very tasty but it’s not some­thing an av­er­age per­son would nec­es­sar­ily think as of qual­ity, com­pared to what they might buy in the stores.

“Both at the farm lev­els and at the su­per­mar­ket level, a lot of those prod­ucts tend to be thrown away.

“The whole idea of Oz Har­vest and REAP is to res­cue that food be­fore it can get to land­fill and re­dis­tribute it to lo­cal com­mu­nity or­gan­i­sa­tions – schools charities, var­i­ous pro­grams – who are pro­vid­ing meals or emer­gency ham­pers to vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple.

“So we are ac­com­plish­ing two things at once – keep­ing food away from land­fill and also help­ing with a so­cial prob­lem which is the fact a lot peo­ple out there are hun­gry and rely on so­cial ser­vices for food re­lief.”

It’s not just fruit and ve­g­ies that are dis­trib­uted. There’s also meat, bak­ery items and tinned foods – any­thing that can be used to feed hun­gry peo­ple.

In just two years, 50,000kg of ex­cess food has been do­nated to REAP in the Sun­shine Coast.

With ev­ery kilo­gram of food cre­at­ing three meals, even Michele ac­knowl­edges the achieve­ment has been “re­mark­able”.

While food res­cue is the cor­ner­stone of the pro­gram, there are also ad­vo­cacy and ed­u­ca­tional com­po­nents – en­gag­ing with the com­mu­nity to help min­imise food waste and sup­port food se­cu­rity and sus­tain­abil­ity in the area. It’s an area in which Michele is be­com­ing more in­volved these days.

“When I first started the pro­gram two years go – in Au­gust 2014 – my fo­cus was al­most ex­clu­sively on iden­ti­fy­ing food sup­pli­ers and re­cip­i­ents and be­ing able to pro­vide a suf­fi­cient amount of food to be able to make a crit­i­cal dif­fer­ence,” she says.

“To give a ba­nana to an or­gan­i­sa­tion means noth­ing but if I can give 30 or 40 or 50 ki­los of food to an or­gan­i­sa­tion then there is some se­cu­rity in them be­ing able to pro­vide some qual­ity con­sis­tently to peo­ple who are in need.” Then there are the fundrais­ing ed­u­ca­tion pro­grams. One called Cook­ing For a Cause is partly a team-build­ing ex­er­cise for lo­cal busi­nesses, with peo­ple at­tend­ing a cook­ing demon­stra­tion with REAP vol­un­teer cooks – some­times celebrity chefs – and then mak­ing meals out of res­cued food.

While she says she loves her new role, Michele also ad­mits she misses the hu­man­i­tar­ian work of her past.

“It was the first time in my adult life that I found I felt pas­sion­ate about what I was do­ing …,” she said.

“I’ve had some amaz­ing ex­pe­ri­ences and I feel very, very, very blessed …

“It wasn’t a nine-to-five job – you worked 24/7. You worked hard and you played hard and I was pas­sion­ate about it. “So, of course, I crave that. But I’m too old for it now. “It took me un­til about six months ago be­fore I fi­nally said ‘move on’.”


Mem­bers of the UN As­sis­tance Mis­sion in Afghanistan (UNAMA) re­gional of­fice in Mazar-i-Sharif farewelling Lt Colonel Chris Mead (cen­tre, with Michele be­hind him) in 2004.


John Bul­ley do­nates meat prod­ucts to Michele Lip­ner from REAP.


Michele Lip­ner trav­elled to In­done­sia to carry out hu­man­i­tar­ian work fol­low­ing the dev­as­tat­ing 2004 tsunami.


Peo­ple stand in line as they wait for their turn to get free petrol dis­trib­uted by the gov­ern­ment at a petrol sta­tion in Banda Aceh, In­done­sia, fol­low­ing the 2004 Box­ing Day tsunami.

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