As Christmas approaches I give thanks for our supporters and our incredible volunteers. Their generosity means that people living in remote Australia have access to hope and helping hands, when they need it.
At a time where we reflect on people near and dear to us, I wanted to share a story that really touched me. A story of isolation and struggle, and how a family overcame them with the help of our wonderful Outback Links volunteers and our Bush Chaplains. I pray that it inspires you to give a gift this Christmas and bring hope to those living in remote Australia.
Twenty-five years ago, a young graduate teacher fresh out of university left Brisbane to start her career in the country. While there, Alison met the man of her dreams; a farmer named Rhett. They married, had three children and built a life together six-hours west of Charleville.
From their current property on the Western Downs, Alison told me the peace of living in the bush is worth its challenges but accessing services can be a struggle and isolating.
“He didn’t know if he would ever see me again.”
In February this year, just as her eldest son, Brendan was leaving home for the first time to work in the Northern Territory, Alison received devastating news – news that every woman dreads to hear. She had breast cancer.
I can’t imagine the anguish that Alison and her family went through. As a mother, it breaks my heart to imagine what it was like for Alison as the news sunk in; that she needed immediate surgery at the same time her son was leaving home. She would have to travel to Toowoomba, leaving her husband to look after the farm and their two younger children.
Alison and Rhett with baby Brendan
“The diagnosis was a big shock for everyone but it was really tough for Brendan,” Alison told me. “He said he was worried because he didn’t know if he would ever see me again.”
These are words no mother wants to hear from their child.
Following on from the trauma of surgery, a gruelling four months of chemotherapy followed. All the while, Alison thought about her family. The hope of being reunited with them kept her strong.
Then an amazing opportunity to see Brendan and have the family together again presented itself. The timing was right. There was a break between treatments. Alison felt well enough to travel. But it was a narrow window. And they were in the middle of drought-feeding their cattle.
They desperately needed someone reliable who could drive the tractor, look after the cattle and take the grain delivery. But who could they turn to in this time of need?
Fortunately, one of our amazing volunteers, Graeme was able to give them a helping hand. He first met Alison and Rhett on an Outback Links volunteer placement ten years ago. Their enduring bond of friendship meant that Alison and Rhett had someone to call on.
Reunited with the family in the Northern Territory (June 2018): Above left (left to right) – Brendan with Alison, Rhett and his younger brother, Samuel; above right (left to right) – Brendan with Rhett and his younger sister, Jemma
“Having someone like Graeme that you can trust with your livelihood makes a huge difference,” said Alison. “Being able to get away and be with family during this difficult time was such a wonderful gift.”
Our farmers tell me time and again how much they value the support, respite and friendship our wonderful Outback Links volunteers provide. This practical care brings so much hope to people in rural and remote communities. By giving a gift of $25 or $50 today, you too can bring helping hands and hope to people like Alison and Rhett.
“He was there to help…it gave us this sense of hope.”
Looking back over the years, Alison is grateful for the times Graeme, Outback Links and our Bush Chaplains have been able to help her family.
Alison and Rhett’s relationship with Graeme began in 2008 when they were on their first cattle venture on Bulloo Lakes, six hours’ drive west of Charleville.
They had borrowed a tremendous amount of money to kick-start their dream, but a great challenge lay ahead of them. Before they could use much of the land, they needed to mend all the old fencing that had either fallen or worn down.
Encouraged by a friend, they reached out to Outback Links and received a life line. Their first volunteer was on his way. It was Graeme and his friendship would prove to be a blessing.
He helped them stock-proof some old fencing, bring an old tractor back to life, fix electrics around the home and put the cattle yards in place. Over subsequent years Graeme would return, sometimes with an extra pair of hands, to help with other projects that gave the Mobbs more use of the paddocks at Bulloo Lakes – a real boon for them.
“We had so much to do to turn things around,” Alison said. “To have someone like Graeme giving their time and sharing their skills; to see him working really hard to help us ‘make it work’…it gave us this sense of hope and helped us develop belief in ourselves.”
Friends, the demand is high and we need to grow our Outback Links program so more volunteers can be there for families like Alison’s, but to do this we need to raise $150,000. Please help break the barriers of distance and isolation by giving a generous gift of $25, $50 or even $100 this Christmas.
At Bulloo Lakes: (Above) Graeme fencing; (Below) Feeding cattle with the tractor Graeme ‘brought back to life’
Over the years, Alison and Rhett benefitted not only from our Outback Links volunteers, but from the care and compassion of our Bush Chaplains, too. Visiting people in remote communities, Bush Chaplains provide that listening ear when people in isolation need someone to lean on.
While they were on Bulloo Lakes, Alison would drive the children two-and-a-half hours north to Blackall to attend school, where they would stay four nights each week, returning home on Fridays. But this would leave Rhett on his own for most of the week. With their nearest neighbour 40km away, I can’t bear to imagine how tough that kind of isolation was on Rhett.
Fortunately, the couple found comfort with our Bush Chaplains. Alison told me that over the years a number of Bush Chaplains visited their property, especially while she and the children were away at school. Knowing someone would be there to check in gave her peace of mind.
“For my husband, to have another man to talk to and overcome the kind of isolation and loneliness you encounter out there, was a big thing,” she recalled. “Having a visit from the chaplains was always welcome.”
A Christmas wish
I was moved by a heart-warming memory Alison shared about a time her family sat around the camp fire with Graeme. Telling stories and playing the guitar, he brought out a block of chocolate for each of the three children.
“You wouldn’t think chocolate would have such an impact but, out here, when the groceries come, all the nice things get eaten first,” Alison recalls. “The chocolate was such a treat for the kids. It felt just like Christmas!”
Alison told me she’s looking forward to spending Christmas with her family and that the best present would be to see a couple of inches of summer rain. She completed her radiotherapy in August and is now on the road to recovery. We hope and pray that it’s the end of her cancer journey. But the struggles and isolation for people in remote Australia continue.
For me, Alison’s story reinforces the important role our Outback Links volunteers and our Bush Chaplains play for people in the Outback. The links they make with people in the bush go well beyond the practical and pastoral care they provide.
My Christmas wish is to increase the number of Bush Chaplains from 12 to 25 and build a network of 1,000 active volunteers so more people in rural and remote Australia can receive a helping hand when they need it. Your gift this Christmas – large or small – will help make this wish come true. Whatever you can give is much appreciated.
My prayers are with you and your family this Christmas season.
Jannine Jackson, National Director