As a woman from country Queensland, Sr Christine Henry, a Sister of Charity, recognised the need to support farmers struggling to survive the extremes of climate change, which were taking a toll on their livelihoods and families.
This vision and initiative grew into the Downs and West Community Support ministry, which recently celebrated its 10-year anniversary, writes Sr Karan Varker RSC in the Global Sisters Report.
March 2007 was the height of the worst drought for 100 years. The district of Allora, where Christine had grown up, and many other regions across Queensland, had not received good rain for 16 years. Underground water and rivers were drying up. Desperate farmers were buying water at the cost of almost $1,000 per 1 million litres, to sustain their crops in the hope that the rains would come.
The Darling Downs, once known as the most fertile land in Australia, was parched and barren. To make matters worse, in spite of strict quarantine policies, equine influenza had broken out in southern Queensland, locking down some towns for weeks on end.
Farmers, under severe psychological stress from coping with poor crops and loss of livestock, postponed making decisions, impacting their ability to keep their property and maintain their families. Disbelief, despair and depression were widespread. Some farmers took their own lives.
In 2007, I had the privilege of travelling to the outback with Christine, for four days, on the initial trip when she began making connections with people and assessing needs. As we drove along, it was heartbreaking to see sheep and cattle struggling to survive on the brown grass, eroded land and dried-up streams. We wondered how the farmers could survive the devastation.
Christine noted the high incidence of depression, suicide, spiralling financial debts, loss of farms, increased isolation of people, family break-ups, increased work hours and increased unemployment. She realised that one way to help farmers might be to bring city and country people closer together, and to ask city people to help farmers — so vital to our existence in this land of droughts, fires and floods. Fortunately she had the ability to network and collaborate with other groups who could assist rural families.
Thus began the DWCS ministry through which urban people might help their struggling farmers on the Downs and to the west of Brisbane. City businesses, community groups and a number of schools were eager to help in any way they could, and DWCS was the link through which they could do this. Besides donations of goods and money, generous volunteers came on board. To date, DWCS has recorded thousands of volunteer hours.
As well as giving practical support, Christine and her volunteers offer friendship, a listening ear, emotional support, encouragement and spiritual care for rural people suffering the effects of drought and flood. They have visited the sick, provided food and have also provided education and coastal holidays for country children.
A popular program which DWCS developed is the "Wellness Day" for country women. These are offered at no cost to participants, and the women — who often live in isolation — love to come together to enjoy each other's company.
On these days, they participate in a variety of educational sessions focusing on family budgets, sustainability and coping with change. They have an opportunity to see a doctor, a psychologist and a diabetic consultant, and they are offered a variety of relaxation therapies, as well as sessions on health and the importance of self-care. They enjoy delicious morning tea and lunch, then return home with gift packs and family hampers.
Farmers are so grateful for the assistance DWCS have offered them. One said, "Thank you to the Angels of Charity who came calling before Christmas and left a hamper at our door." Another commented, "Thank you for your kindness to me and my family during this tough time, mentally, physically, financially, emotionally. You listen and encourage, never judge."
A version of this article was first published in Global Sisters Report. Read it here.