In 2010 a small group of students, collegians and staff from Radford College’s senior school travelled to northern New South Wales to assist at preschools affiliated with the Gunawirra (1) organisation, one of whose aims is to look for ways ‘to fundamentally improve the lives of Aboriginal families and their children from 0-5’. Our trip was exploratory as the Radford contingent was looking for ways to better understand the country, townships and people of rural Australia. Participants also hoped to learn more about themselves and the realities associated with authentic service endeavour(2). We did not go to do much but to learn, build relationships and respond to things as they emerged. Over time these ideas have been simplified into the phrase ‘never to, not for, but with people’ to describe what we do on our trips. These seven words convey a very powerful message and as such have come to form one of our service rules of engagement. They also offer useful advice for engaging with a part of Australia that has sometimes suffered from misplaced or misinformed good intentions and short-term or empty promises.
‘never to, not for, but with people’
It was not long before the original brief was expanded to include primary and high school programs. By 2013 the trips, which were now known as G-Trips in recognition of Gunawirran ideals and the traditional language of the Gamilaraay people, were occurring three times a year. Participants spent a week actively engaging in daily life at rural and in some instances remote schools. They helped staff and children unconditionally and energetically wherever and whenever they could whilst mutually sharing life stories, talents and experiences. One result was a deeper understanding of the needs of schools with a high percentage of Indigenous children. Others were greater empathy for Aboriginal people and an awareness of their history and culture.
Notable stop-off points en route to our destination include Myall Creek, the Stonewoman Aboriginal site, Cranky Rock Nature Reserve, Mount Yarrowyck Aboriginal Cave Paintings, Copeton Dam and the intriguing junkyard at Molong. At the end of their week of service at the schools the groups retreat to the uniquely-shaped mountains of Warrumbungle National Park to reflect on their G-Trip experiences, what they have learned and where their next footsteps will lead them.
In some cases the effects on ‘city’ students have been transformative
One boy recently reflected on his time with the Gamilaraay people as a change agent.
In 2012 I found myself in serious trouble at school, and as part of the consequences, I had to undertake a certain amount of community service. With the encouragement of several teachers, I found myself heading out on Gamilaraay 4. I thought the entire experience was going to be terrible, but actually those nine days were the best of my life and completely changed me in so many ways … I have gone from being a kid who was going down the wrong track, to someone who has a new and different perspective on life.
Watching this lad engage, enthuse and inspire what were possibly miniature versions of his former self in his ‘adopted’ class would have warmed the hardest and most cynical of observers’ hearts. Not surprisingly he volunteered for another G-Trip in the following year.
The G-tradition continues this year with three, possibly four groups of 26 students and four members of staff, heading to Tingha’s Green Valley Farm, 629kms north-north east of Sydney, which will be their base. From here they will travel to their workplaces – selected rural pre-primary, primary and central schools in Armidale, Bundarra, Gilgai, Moree and Tingha. Some G-trippers will be commuting for up to four-and-a half-hours a day to reach their remote schools.
For the last two years Radford students have also been fundraising for the ‘Crossing The Divide’ (CTD) initiative run from Bundarra Central School. This program, which was championed by past G-trippers, offers an alternative program for youth who have been disengaged from mainstream education. Courses focus on life skills, health and wellbeing as well as educational and industry-specific pathways. More than 85 per cent of students enrolled in the program are from Tingha and Inverell and over 80 per cent are Indigenous.
One of Radford’s students had this to say after spending a week working, learning and laughing alongside a group of CTD students:
It is easy for us, in our position of relative privilege and good fortune, to turn a blind eye and plead ignorance to the injustice which does not directly affect us. It is easy for us to judge others, when we have no concept of the harsh realities that dictate their lives. … I dream of a future where opportunity and choice in the life you lead are not governed by your place in society which you had no say over. I dream that in the future, programs that provide a way across this ever-growing divide for those who have been left behind will have their place cemented in our education system. A future within our lifetime where everyone is at least given the chance to ‘Cross The Divide’.
Gamilaraay trips are rich service learning experiences. They provide hope that our future leaders will have the courage and the skills to help ‘bridge the gap’ between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ in our society – something which our generation has not been able to effectively achieve. I encourage schools to consider ways of befriending and developing meaningful links with Indigenous communities. The rewards for schools and Indigenous communities are significant.
George Huitker has recently published his latest book “A Big Life” it can be purchased at ginninderrapress.com.au
This article first appeared in the ASA newsletter June 2014.
- Gunawirra is a not-for-profit PBI organisation comprising Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal professionals working side by side for fundamental improvements in the life of Aboriginal families, their infants and children.
- One of Radford College’s aims is ‘to develop our students as outward looking service focused leaders who have the courage and skills to transform’. Radford College Strategic Plan, 2011-2015
Born and raised in Canberra Australia, George Huitker is inspired to help people see beyond themselves by investing their time and energy in working with people who have fewer, if any, choices in their lives. Mentor, writer, musician, actor, teacher, sports coach – George, at the age of 48, is still asking the question, “What’s so funny about peace, love and understanding?”