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Drought brings city and country high schools together to lend a helping hand

Sally Bryant, Thursday December 6, 2018 - 15:21 EDT
Audience submitted image
Gilgandra High School principal Neal Reed accepts a donation from Parramatta student, Anisha. - Audience submitted

You would be hard pressed to find two schools that have less in common, at first glance.

Parramatta High School is cramped for space in busy inner-urban western Sydney, any expansion they do will have to go up in the air, as there is no space for lateral movement.

The city bustles around them and school-life buzzes along within the grounds.

Students have a rich multicultural heritage and diverse backgrounds, but most of them have never been west of the Nepean River.

Gilgandra High School sprawls on the plains of the rural central west, in what is usually a sea of golden wheat crops at this time of year.

The student body is made up of laconic rural faces, of young people who learn to drive when they're old enough to see over the steering wheel.

Some of them have been to Sydney for holidays or excursions but didn't much go for it. Too noisy, too much traffic.

Now drought has brought these students together.

Gilgandra maths teacher Steven Schier said you could see the impact of the drought on students at the high school.

He said the project that brought Parramatta to Gilgandra started off quite small, as a way of helping farming families.

"We were initially going to target the farm kids, but it really does affect the whole school," he said.

"We have one little fellow in year 8, who said to his teacher 'Do you believe in God, because if there was a God, wouldn't he make it rain, so the animals would be okay, and so people wouldn't be losing their jobs?'

"That's a pretty profound statement about the impact on young people."

Parramatta High School teacher Helen Moore works with the social justice group at the school.

She said when the students were looking for a project for their group to concentrate on, in the final term of the 2018 school year, the drought seemed a logical choice.

City media had been full of the stories of hardship and depression facing rural communities, and students could see the impact it was having. They wanted to find out more and find a way to help.

In the past, the group has done research on and raised funds to help homeless people. Students have studied social issues such as gender bias, multiculturalism, and cultural and religious diversity.

The project started to come together through the term, with students holding mufti days and sausage sizzles, staging a dress-like-a-farmer day and talking up the bush.

Ms Moore told the students to do some research before they dressed up like farmers.

"I said, go online and see, kids on farms don't all wear checked shirts and boots," she said.

"I told them, these kids are more like you than you think, they are watching the same shows on television, they have the same apps on their phones."

The project continued to gain momentum and the fundraising went on. Other members of the school community started chipping in from their own projects and the tally continued to grow, beyond even Ms Moore's wildest expectations.

"There were donations from staff and family and friends, the money came from all over the place, people kept giving us money for Gilgandra," she said.

"A couple of weeks ago, the boss jokingly challenged us to raise $10,000 and I didn't think for a moment we could do it. But we did!

"I am so, so proud of the kids and of our school community — this has exceeded our wildest dreams!"

Gilgandra High School principal Neal Reed said the impact of the drought on his entire community had been enormous and the visit from the Parramatta school had been a real shot in the arm.

"This is about young people connecting with young people, breaking down barriers and getting to know each other," Mr Reed said.

"This is an opportunity for young people from the city to get an understanding of a rural community and what the impact of drought is on those people.

"Because it doesn't just affect individual farms, or individual people or individual families — it affects the entire community.

"This visit is an opportunity for young people to build a connection with someone whose life is so different from theirs."

Year 10 student Matthew Jiang has already spent some time in the Australian countryside, through being an Airforce cadet, and said this visit had been a real success.

"I think the high point has been getting to know the Gilgandra High School, and the students here," he said.

"It's been great to build this relationship between our schools.

"I haven't seen much of the impact of drought before; this visit has shown me that you can't underestimate the impact they have.

"It's important that you have other people to support you, and you can support them in turn."

The bus arrived in Gilgandra on the Wednesday evening. Students spent Thursday exploring the township, seeing major attractions such as the Cooee Heritage Centre and the Agriculture Museum.

They had time for a game of barefoot bowls and some organised activities at Gilgandra High School.

On Friday, Parramatta students visited Ian McCutcheon's farm, where they saw firsthand the effects of the drought.

They toured a shearing shed, met some working dogs and went and stood in an open paddock, under the vast blue Australian sky.

It had been a trip to remember.


© ABC 2018

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