HE­ROES OF THE DROUGHT:

Aus­tralians have a his­tory of pulling together in ad­ver­sity, and in times of drought, we see that in spades. Jenny Brown meets some in­spir­ing Aus­tralians who are dig­ging deep to help our strug­gling farm­ers.

The Australian Women's Weekly - - Contents -

Aussies dig­ging deep to help our farm­ers

An an­gel at the gate

Pic­ture an 82-year-old farmer so des­per­ate for wa­ter he climbs 30 me­tres down his dry well, brav­ing deadly brown snakes to nd the last pre­cious, brack­ish drops at the bot­tom. That’s how bad things are in the bush, ac­cord­ing to Drought An­gels founder Natasha “Tash” John­ston, who heard about the old man and his sick wife on their cat­tle and sheep prop­erty in NSW’s scorched Hunter Val­ley from a vol­un­teer.

“They were bat­tling to get by but they didn’t want to ask for help,” says the tire­less 44-yearold, who runs the unique ru­ral char­ity out of Chin­chilla, Queens­land, with best friend Jenny Gai­ley, 49. “That’s typ­i­cal of peo­ple in the coun­try. They’re proud, so they’re em­bar­rassed to be in need. Very few con­tact us di­rectly. It’s usu­ally fam­ily or friends who get in touch.”

De­spite farm­ers’ tra­di­tional re­luc­tance to reach out for as­sis­tance, de­mand is now un­prece­dented, with 100 per cent of NSW, and some 57 per cent of Queens­land, de­clared to be in drought. In just three weeks, the An­gels logged over 16,000 emails – more than one a minute dur­ing work­ing hours – plus thou­sands of calls.

Since Tash es­tab­lished the char­ity back in 2014 with her mate, Nicki Black­well, it has gained a rep­u­ta­tion for dis­creet, heart­felt re­lief tai­lored to in­di­vid­ual need. Drought An­gels can lend a hand with stock feed, pre-paid Visa cards worth $1500, lo­cal pro­duce vouch­ers, re­fer­rals to other sup­port net­works, or sim­ply by pro­vid­ing a sym­pa­thetic ear. Ru­ral Days Off, where vol­un­teers move in to give farm­ers 24 hours of leisure, and sup­port Drought Drinks, en­cour­ag­ing com­mu­ni­ties to come together for some fun, are two other pop­u­lar ini­tia­tives.

“When we started out with enough to help one fam­ily, we thought we’d be go­ing for three to six months, the drought would break and that would be it. Ob­vi­ously, that never hap­pened,” says Tash, re­veal­ing how her par­ents al­most lost their prop­erty out­side Toowoomba in the big dry of the early 1990s.

“Their crops failed and the banks came knock­ing,” she re­calls. “I can re­mem­ber my mum break­ing down in the kitchen, say­ing she wanted to kill her­self. It was hor­ri­ble and res­onates with me for­ever. I guess that’s why Drought An­gels has be­come my pas­sion.”

To do­nate to Drought An­gels, go to drough­tan­gels.org.au

Boots and all

The drought hit home for Chezzi Denyer as she watched the land­scape dry from lush green to a dusty bone grey-brown. “It’s de­press­ing. It feels dead. It looks dead. It’s hor­ri­ble,” the Mummy Time TV founder wrote on In­sta­gram on July 23, post­ing a pho­to­graph of the parched pad­docks that rapidly went vi­ral.

Even the kan­ga­roos were starv­ing out­side Bathurst in Cen­tral Western NSW where Chezzi shares a home­stead with her tele­vi­sion-star hus­band, Grant, 40, and their two daugh­ters. The cou­ple, both born into farm­ing fam­i­lies, be­came celebrity am­bas­sadors for Ru­ral Aid last year but were moved to do even more after a trip to NSW’s drought­stricken Up­per Hunter in Fe­bru­ary.

“That was how we spent our eighth wed­ding an­niver­sary,” says Chezzi, 38, who or­gan­ised a Black Tie and Boots Ball in Bathurst that raised more than $150,00 to pro­vide a Ru­ral Aid coun­sel­lor in their re­gion. “The prob­lem is so big and so scary, it’s hor­ren­dous.”

Hor­ri­fied by the mount­ing drought cri­sis, in two weeks, Chezzi made 46 trips to farm­ers – with Scout, three, and Sailor, seven, in tow – drop­ping off care ham­pers, stock feed and gro­ceries.

“I felt over­whelmed. We saw sad sights that will stay with me for­ever,” she says. “A lot of farm­ers have con­tem­plated sui­cide be­cause of the drought, which isn’t easy to talk about. Ru­ral coun­sel­lors are vi­tal. Peo­ple are ground down by the strug­gle to sur­vive, get­ting up ev­ery day to hand-feed stock, try­ing to keep an­i­mals alive. And they have to raise kids, put meals on the ta­ble. A lot of farm­ers can’t pay their bills and are liv­ing with­out elec­tric­ity, never mind the in­ter­net. That means some have no idea what help is on of­fer, which is why it’s so im­por­tant to visit them in per­son.”

Chezzi was a girl when her par­ents left the land, forced off their farm in Du­ra­mana, NSW, by six years of drought. “There was so much death and de­struc­tion then, and it’s hap­pen­ing again,” ex­plains the pas­sion­ate ru­ral ad­vo­cate, who is busy plan­ning at least two more Black Tie and Boots fundrais­ing bashes.

“It’s great Aussies are back­ing Aussies, help­ing through char­i­ties like Ru­ral Aid, but there needs to be more gov­ern­ment sup­port.” To do­nate to Ru­ral Aid or to Buy A Bale, visit ru­ralaid.org.au

From lit­tle things

Some­times proud par­ents Prue and Mick Berne shake their heads in dis­be­lief and won­der ex­actly how their lively 10-year-old raised $655,000 for drought-stricken farm­ers.

“Ev­ery now and then, I’m a lit­tle bit in awe,” Prue says of her freckle-faced son, who hatched the idea of A Fiver for a Farmer after learn­ing about the coun­try cri­sis at school on Syd­ney’s north­ern beaches. “He came home all red up and told me, ‘Mum, we have to do more!’ He’s al­ways been a doer and has a lit­tle bit of a spark that peo­ple are drawn to.”

Sports-lov­ing Jack aimed to raise $20,000 for ru­ral re­lief by get­ting friends at Fresh­wa­ter’s St John the Bap­tist Pri­mary School to dress up as farm­ers on Au­gust 13, and pay $5 for the priv­i­lege. His friends and his lit­tle sis­ter, Ruby, who is seven, were keen to take part. But the sim­ple scheme spread like wild re once Prue sent her son’s

emo­tional fundrais­ing email to a few news­pa­pers and tele­vi­sion pro­grams.

Clos­ing with the words, “If we don’t do some­thing, who will? It’s all of our fu­tures,” Jack’s let­ter struck a chord. The fol­low­ing morn­ing an as­ton­ished Prue was el­d­ing calls of sup­port from all around Australia, as Ed­wina Bartholomew lined up an in­ter­view with Jack on Sun­rise. Reach­ing his target within 48 hours, the Year Four pow­er­house in­creased his goal to $50,000, to be di­vided be­tween Ru­ral Aid and Drought An­gels, but that too was soon sur­passed.

“It just sky­rock­eted,” says Prue, reg­u­larly moved to tears by the “thank you” let­ters they re­ceive. “We pulled together a web­site and a GoFundMe page that rst night, but we were over­whelmed at the be­gin­ning. I think it touched peo­ple be­cause he’s so young.” More than 510 schools, 304 pre-schools and 340 work­places, in­clud­ing Bauer Me­dia (pub­lisher of The Weekly), signed up to par­tic­i­pate in Fiver for a Farmer. For­mer Prime Min­is­ter Mal­colm Turn­bull called Jack, even men­tion­ing his ef­forts in Par­lia­ment.

“Mum told me I could use my small but mighty voice, so I did,” he grins. “We sent emails to any­one who might lis­ten, and next day it all went crazy.” What’s next for the young crusader? “I’m go­ing to nd an­other nat­u­ral dis­as­ter I can help!”

To do­nate to A Fiver for a Farmer, visit a ver­fora­farmer. com.au

A help­ing hand

Climb­ing wearily into his well-trav­elled four-wheel drive, Brian Egan heads off along the road from Charleville in out­back Queens­land on an­other farm mercy mis­sion. It’s four months since the rangy 75-year-old last en­joyed any time at home. This time the Aussie Helpers founder has re­turned only to se­cure an­other $1 mil­lion in drought re­lief, on top of the $1 mil­lion­plus his char­ity has al­ready do­nated over the past six months.

Cur­rently, Aussie Helpers is send­ing four hay-laden semi-trail­ers from Queens­land to bone-dry NSW ev­ery day, at a cost of $140,000, plus two tankers of wa­ter per week. Phones and emails at the farm aid or­gan­i­sa­tion are run­ning hot with hun­dreds upon hun­dreds of re­quests for prac­ti­cal help and coun­selling ser­vices.

“It’s noth­ing short of cat­a­strophic, that’s how bad this drought is. Men­tally, peo­ple are very frag­ile,” says Brian, who reg­u­larly spends at least six months on the road in the dusty Landcruiser that dou­bles as his of ce and home away from home. “I used to be six foot six (1.98m), now I’m about three foot three (0.99m)!”

Clock­ing up more than 500,000 kilo­me­tres an­nu­ally, vis­it­ing proud, self-suf cient coun­try fam­i­lies in need, the one-time Se­nior Aus­tralian of the Year nom­i­nee has seen parched earth, re, disease and ood. This drought, how­ever, is worse than any­thing he’s ex­pe­ri­enced in the 16 years since he and wife Nerida, 72, started Aussie Helpers with just $20 in the bank.

“She told me I was crazy, and I prob­a­bly was,” laughs fa­ther-of-four, Brian. “From there it just grew. Peo­ple loved the idea of help­ing farm­ers through tough times and kept giv­ing us money. We’ve never had to or­gan­ise a fundraiser yet.”

The Viet­nam vet­eran lost his own farm and strug­gled with PTSD (Post Trau­matic Stress Dis­or­der), de­pres­sion and sui­ci­dal thoughts be­fore be­ing ad­mit­ted to psy­chi­atric care for 12 months in the late 1990s. To­day, the for­mer RAN ser­vice­man reck­ons he was saved by a psy­chol­o­gist who told him, “You should nd some­one to help who’s worse off than your­self.” Aussie Helpers was the re­sult. Run with mil­i­tary pre­ci­sion, the char­ity now has up to 40 vol­un­teers, many of them also ex-mil­i­tary per­son­nel.

In spite of all his hard work, Brian fears that ru­ral life as we know it may never fully re­cover from this lat­est nat­u­ral dis­as­ter. “I know of at least 15 sui­cides in coun­try NSW over the past six months,” he says som­brely. “I pre­dict that we’ll lose be­tween 20 and 25 per cent of ‘mum and dad’ farm­ers in NSW as a re­sult of this drought. Peo­ple will just walk off the land be­cause they can’t af­ford to go on.”

To do­nate to Aussie Helpers, visit aussiehelpers.org.au

All dressed up

It started with a brain­wave dur­ing a late-night, long-dis­tance chat be­tween sis­ters Anita Guyett and Tashoni Hardy. Touched by news many coun­try schools were call­ing off their for­mals be­cause drought-stricken farm­ers could not af­ford gowns and suits for their teenagers, the sib­lings de­cided to help.“As a par­ent, that would crush your heart and spirit ab­so­lutely,” says Anita, 32, a Mel­bourne-based mother-of-three who works in men­tal health. “So we thought, this is some­thing we can help with. Why don’t we get our friends to do­nate their old for­mal clothes for a good cause?”

Dresses for the Drought rapidly blos­somed from a bright idea into a Face­book page. Hav­ing grown up on a cat­tle prop­erty out­side Mackay in Queens­land, the sis­ters knew just how im­por­tant school for­mals can be to ru­ral stu­dents liv­ing on scat­tered and iso­lated farms.

Anita and Tashoni orig­i­nally hoped to gather 20 to 40 dresses but within a few days re­ceived thou­sands of “likes” fol­lowed by 5000 gowns and suits from all around Australia. It seems most of us have long-ne­glected for­mal clothes hang­ing at the back of our wardrobes.

“We’ve reached ca­pac­ity and have been forced to close off do­na­tions for the moment,” says ight at­ten­dant Tashoni, 29, a Bris­bane-based moth­erof-two. “The great thing is that most for­mal dresses are worn only once or twice, so they’re in good con­di­tion, plus they don’t re­ally go out of style. Peo­ple have dropped off gowns that still have tags at­tached to them and even the ones with­out tags are in beau­ti­ful con­di­tion.”

The kind-hearted sis­ters have now started a GoFundMe page to help with dis­tri­bu­tion costs. They also hope to pro­vide shop­ping vouch­ers so stu­dents can buy shoes, ac­ces­sories and hair and make-up ser­vices in their area, thus help­ing lo­cal busi­nesses also af­fected by the drought.

“I’m known for my crazy ideas, but this was one of the good ones,” laughs Tashoni. “It’s not just about hav­ing a for­mal dress or suit, it’s about the cel­e­bra­tion, the re­ward for kids who have worked so hard in tough times, and the mem­o­ries that last a life­time. AWW

To con­tact Dresses for the Drought for help or sup­port, go to face­book.com/dress­es­forthe­drought

Drought An­gels, founded by Nicki and Tash, helps with feed, cash, vouch­ers and re­fer­rals, as well as 24-hour Ru­ral Days Off respite and com­mu­nity events.

Above: Chezzi and her TV per­son­al­ity hus­band Grant are Ru­ral Aid am­bas­sadors. Right: Chezzi’s photo of the parched Bathurst coun­try.

Jack Berne (green shirt) urged his class­mates to dress as farm­ers. Right: Brian Egan with a load of hay bound for NSW.

Sis­ters Anita and Tashoni col­lect clothes for school for­mals and dis­trib­ute them to stu­dents on iso­lated farms around Australia, in­clud­ing Lon­greach.

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