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Retired officers join drought-relief battle

19 June 2015

Retired officers join drought-relief battle

“Australian farmers really are very resilient, especially the ones who have a faith in God. But some haven’t been able to stand the pressure and have fallen into depression and communities have lost quite a few through suicide. That has a terrible, life-long impact on the children and families.” - Major Bob Strong (Ret.)

Retired Salvation Army officers Majors Bob and Estelle Strong, together with a number of volunteer teams, have been working to bring chaplaincy care and relief to drought-hit outback communities in north-west NSW.

Together with Majors Alan and Chris Daley, the Strongs spent two weeks in March visiting more than 30 farmers east and south-east of Lightning Ridge, offering emotional, spiritual and financial help.

Many of these farmers are enduring their fourth year of drought.

Seeing the depth of need, the Strongs returned to the area for four weeks over May and early June, with three other retired couples – Majors Don and Eva Hill, Wayne and Pam Koivu and Margaret and Ron Kenyon.

Covering areas west and south-west of Lightning Ridge, the team made contact with a further 102 farmers,  providing financial assistance to more than 80.

As well as distributing vouchers and grants for bills, provided through rural appeal donations, Major Bob Strong said individual corps also sent gifts.

“We had approached two churches that our group has links with – Port Macquarie and Nambour Salvation Army – and asked for items for pamper packs. There was an overwhelming response,” he said.

“One lady (farmer) unpacked everything from her pamper pack twice. She made her husband sit and watch as she unpacked it and showed him everything in it – it was such an incredible treat.

“The other thing that really uplifted the farmers' spirit was the fact that someone would come out over sometimes very rough, long, dusty dirt roads and would sit and listen to them for hours.”

At first, many farmers would say they “were managing”, but over a cup of tea or coffee the reality would emerge.

“One farmer was reluctant to accept help at first. However, the drive onto his property was a drive through a virtual bowl,” Major Strong said.

“During our conversation he said that because of the conditions and lack of funds there was almost nothing he could do on the property. He said the lack of purpose and activity was causing depression, but he was coping with the help of medication, After a long conversation, over a cup of coffee, he conceded that some financial assistance would help keep one of his children at school.”

Team member Pam Koivu said she and her husband “felt humbled and privileged” to be able to offer assistance on behalf of The Salvation Army.

While there have been many uplifting stories, Margaret said the sense of desperation was also great.

“We spent hours with a young farmer who told us that his wife had left him and taken the kids,” she said. “His car had broken down, and when he tried to sell some of his few remaining cows, they were too weak to climb up onto the truck. He is suffering severe depression. The police confiscated his firearms when his wife left. After some discussion he promised us that he would see his doctor (which he did) and we will continue to follow up.

"We visited two to three farms per day for a month and all of them were doing it tough.”

Major Strong continues: “One gentleman we spoke to is 84 years old. He’d been developing a special wool breed of sheep for the past 40 years and when we saw him, he’d sold off the last of his sheep – his life’s work – because he couldn’t feed them. He applied to get on the pension and had no income at all, because of the size of his property, his assets were apparently too high. But his asset is not an asset at the moment – it is just a dust bowl!”

By Naomi Singlehurst

Caption: Majors Bob and Estelle Strong, Wayne and Pam Koivu, Ron and Margaret Kenyon, Majors Don and Eva Hill during their trip bringing chaplaincy care to struggling farmers.

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