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NSW woman unites community to give farming family graduates a formal fairytale

Ashlee Aldridge, Saturday August 24, 2019 - 07:47 EST
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Ryan Ballentine is conscious of the school formal costs as his family struggles with the drought. - ABC

Like so many Year 12 students at this time of year, Ryan Ballentine is already looking ahead to his end-of-year formal.

But this young man from a farming family in the New South Wales Riverina is well aware of the financial burden that comes with that momentous occasion.

"It's just another cost we can't afford," he said.

"We don't have to worry about $500-$600 bucks for a suit, that can go towards something else that we really actually need."

The Ballentine family has two farms — one in Brocklesby, the other in Condobolin in the state's central west.

Ryan said the latter farm was struggling.

"We've hit it hard here last year, we were meant to have a little bit of rainfall here last year, but it didn't come."

Call for action

The financial burden of the school formal for rural families prompted Lynette Smith to put out a national call for donations of unwanted glitz and glamour.

Ms Smith said she felt inspired to help teens after her own experiences growing up in a small, rural community.

"I never got to do my formal things were really tight when I was a kid," she said.

"I am an oldie and I am off a farm and I know how hard it is to get off the property and get out."

She said the school formal and debutante balls were a highlight for many adolescents, which shouldn't be weighed down by financial worry.

"It is such a big part of their lives because so many kids will leave their country towns after their formals to further their education," she said.

Ms Smith said the added cost was one which many farmers struggled to accommodate.

"There are so many kids out there that are not going to be able to go to their formal or their debs because there is no money.

"Our farmers are struggling to survive as it is.

"We are losing a farmer a week."

At a pop-up shop near you

The Howlong woman turned to social media and created the Farmer Wants a Dress/Suit Facebook page after observing that many people purchased formal wear for a special occasion, only to wear it once.

Over the last four months, suits and frocks for Year 6 and Year 12 graduations have been donated to the cause from all over the country.

Ms Smith is accepting donations until the end of next week.

She then plans to travel throughout rural and regional Victoria and the southern Riverina region dispersing the clothes in a 'pop-up' department store in town halls.

"Let's be mates, lets help a mate and let's pass on what we're not going to use [again]."

"Let's pass it on, lets give it to the families that need it."

"I will have everything set-up like a mobile department store and everyone can come on in," she said.

"If there is someone in the area that can't get there on the day I ask that they contact me and I'll deliver it to them."

A nationwide movement

Ms Smith said many businesses and volunteers have got involved with donate goods, collect items, driving and sorting items.

She said some volunteers had even offered to be a drop-off point in South Australia and the Northern Territory.

A GoFundMe page has been established to raise money for the cost of truck hire to deliver the formal wear.

"I would like us to reach a minimum of 3,000 dresses," she said.

"I am looking for formal wear for kids and the parents [but] if you wouldn't wear it don't send it.

"If you wouldn't see your son or daughter wearing it, don't send it in."

But it was not all about the frocks and suits — accessories, jewellery, shoes, and ties for the blokes were important too.

"This is for the people that have put food on our table, they've supported us for years and years it's now our turn to be a mate."

Financial pressure lifted

Ryan Ballentine will be one of possibly hundreds of young people donning new outfits thanks to Ms Smith and her cause.

He has already found the perfect suit for his big night after his mum thought it was "a hell of an idea".

"It's great, it's a really good initiative," he said.

And it will allow his parents to spent the hundreds of dollars they would otherwise have to pay on the outfit, on something else.

"That can get you a fair bit of hay really, that can go toward feeding a fair few cattle for a while."

The family has been working hard to keep both farms operating.

The Condoblin farm he said was suffering from the drought.

"Last year up at Condobolin we were feeding cattle, we were going up there probably at least twice a week feeding that takes a huge toll on us, we get sick of driving up there," he said.

"Just seeing your cattle struggle so much sort of hits you hard as well.

We were lucky we didn't lose too many cattle, we were very close to losing some though we started supplement feeding them which sort of picked them up a bit."

And he says while things are looking ok now, they can turn for the worst in an instant.

"This year is shaping up to be alright, we could do with more rain here looks like we could have a harvest but that could turn around within an instant with a frost or something like that could ruin our season altogether," he said.


© ABC 2019

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