It was May, 2015 in the isolated town of Oodnadatta, South Australia, otherwise known as hottest town in Australia, famous for it’s Pink Roadhouse.
I looked around me and was surrounded by red dirt as far as the eye could see, the dry wind stinging my eyes. The Aboriginal elders told me with a poignant look in their eyes, that here lie the unmarked graves of their relatives from generations past. One of my roles as a volunteer with the Aboriginal Volunteer Program was to start documenting those within the cemetery.
Four years on, the program is ending, what impact has it made?
The Oodnadatta Aboriginal Volunteer Program (AVP) was one like no other. It was a 10-week volunteer program, inviting Aboriginal volunteers into the remote South Australian community – approximately 200km north of Coober Pedy. Volunteers contributed to locally identified community projects, including working on youth literacy at the local school, the cemetery burial register project and beautifying the community. After the pilot in 2012 the program has made a huge impact, however as of 2019 organisers have decided the program has run its course.
The driving force behind the program was the Volunteering SA and NT Aboriginal Reference Group, who worked in partnership with Australia Volunteers International, to come up with the program. They had a particular vision for the program, but were well aware that the project needed to be run in partnership with the community, the projects themselves needed to be identified by the community. In the midst of the ‘Close the Gap Campaign’ literacy was a key facet of the AVP.
In 2015, 18 per cent of Aboriginal students in Australia failed to meet the national minimum literacy standard. AVP focussed particularly on one-on-one literacy work with students at the Oodnadatta Aboriginal School – this most notably led to improvements with some children moving up two reading years within the 10 weeks.
“We had no idea the program would have such an impact on the literacy levels, the growth of literacy within 10 weeks!” AVP program manager Jo Larkin said.
In addition to the reading, the volunteer program proved to be a 24/7 responsibility for the volunteers who ran after-school activities, outdoor movie nights, supported the local women’s arts and crafts enterprise, and showed an all-round display of leadership and role modelling.
Volunteer from 2016, Montana McStay, agreed with this sentiment but said the rewards were bountiful.
“We provided art classes at the school and cooking classes at the elders’ kitchen, we also did some gardening, planting seedlings. Organised a community barbecue and a disco in the hall,” she said. “We went into the school every morning until lunch to help with literacy and numeracy.
“One girl I worked with struggled with sounding out words and identifying letters. She could do both by herself by the end of the 10 weeks, because of all the one-on-one time. This made me feel so valued and satisfied knowing I had helped in such a huge part of their learning.”
During her time, Montana recalled how rich with culture the community was. “I sat with Kay Kay some afternoons and learnt how to basket weave with emu feathers, and make jewellery out of gumnuts,” she said.
Montana touched on her work on the cemetery project, a project passed on to her from volunteers in the previous year, including myself. The goal was to compile a digital database, in partnership with the community, to document the details of those that lie in the cemetery – the only records prior to this were on paper.
Program manager Jo Larkin acknowledged that this was a culturally sensitive project where years of trust had to be established, and respect was paramount. It is known in Aboriginal culture that mentioning the names of the deceased calls back the spirit of the dead, therefore speaking with the elders regarding the details of the deceased proved to be a unique and sensitive situation for the volunteers to navigate.
Local aged care manager, Roseanne Woodford, is a pillar and role model in the community. She played a huge part in welcoming of the volunteers. However Roseanne says it was the community that learnt from the volunteers.
“What we have learnt from the volunteers was value and the skills they came with, and in return we got things done the way we wanted it, they really adapted to our way of life, even though we don’t have much, we make up with togetherness,” she said.
Today the women of Oodnadatta continue to pursue their arts and craft business, which the AVP helped kickstart. The returned volunteers have also felt a lasting affect in their personal lives, which was illustrated in a 2018 report that displayed the current pro-activeness of the returned volunteers in their home communities making a difference, after partaking in the AVP.
The report was compiled following interviews of all returned volunteers. It concluded, following the completion of the program, that “volunteers gain the confidence and skills to participate in and contribute to community life” back home.
Jo, said although there were suggestions to introduce the program on a national scale, the unique community approach could be lost as AVP was not a ‘one size fits all’ program.