Inspiring Community Members Making An Impact In Central Australia
Finke is a quiet town. There’s not much surrounding it but red dirt and bush. Located in the dead centre of Australia, in the Northern Territory, approximately 317 km south of Alice Springs, this Aboriginal settlement is home to around 160 people. When you arrive, you’ll see the only local shop with two pumps of fuel. The shop is a gathering point where from 9 am till 4 pm locals come to do their groceries, chat and even make some calls on the payphone (there is no mobile reception for miles). The manager of the shop, a friendly Filipino lady, spends her day running the store and trying to shoo away the dogs that eventually find their way inside.
This small, red, friendly and dog-crowded town is also a ‘dry community’. Alcohol was banned by the liquor act of 1978, and the locals feel safer because of it. “Drunks only trash the place and scare the kids,” an elderly lady states. She reveals that the building that used to be a pub many years ago was transformed into an art gallery and will possibly become a museum in the future. The whole community makes an effort to keep Finke, or Aputula, clean and tidy. There’s no rubbish on the ground. All trash is tossed into bins and sorted in the drop off bays. The artists beautify buildings and street corners with colourful paintings - a collective effort that gave Finke the ‘NT Tidy Town’ title in 2017.
Of course, not everything is perfect, and just like any other community, they face problems. Occasionally, alcohol does find its way into the town, especially during the famous Finke Desert Race that draws 3.000 people looking for an adrenaline rush. But problems don’t discourage the community. Their efforts to meet the challenges are visible all year long. And they succeed. So much so that kids from other communities who have parents with drinking problems have found refuge and a chance for a better life with relatives in Finke. And many adults have dedicated their time to make Finke a safe and stable place for present and future generations - personalities who are true blossoms in the middle of the desert.
Walking around Finke, you will se a little bit of Justine in every corner. Her art is on all of the plant pots used on roundabouts, on gymnasium walls, on canvases hanging in the Finke Art Gallery and also on the mural outside the gallery, where we had the privilege of photographing her portrait. And even though she describes herself as “a lefty who loves to do creative things”, Justine Anderson is way more than that. She is a support worker at the school, a night patroller, a mum and when time allows her, an artist. “I have a very busy life and a busy house,” she says.
Working at the school, she’s responsible for helping children with their reading skills, and because the children speak in the local Aboriginal dialect, she also helps the teachers to identify when kids have trouble communicating and when they curse. After school, she expects around 12 children at her home, of which only three are her own. “They love playing with my children,” she acknowledges. Having a crowded house is a lot of work, but she embraces it. She’s got a trampoline and likes to do fun things with them like baking cup cakes. Her boys have Lego and videogames, and that fun creative environment provides the children in the community with a safe place. When the sun sets, Justine gathers all of them to serve dinner, and after dark, she starts the night patrol. “I also do the morning ‘Night Patrol’ when the schools are running,” she adds.
Despite having a hectic routine, Justine still manages to dedicate some time to her favourite hobby: painting. “Painting makes me happy, and I love being able to do this while having my kids around.” As an introvert, she found in her art a way to express herself. Her artwork represents her feelings, thoughts and stages of her life. One of her main paintings is displayed in the Finke Art Gallery and represents the birth of her little girl. Her work is also available in the souvenir shop at Uluru National Park, and the revenue helps to support the local Aboriginal community.
Of all the places in the world, Finke would not be the most likely place to find a Filipino women choosing to call it home. Yet Jubilee not only made that choice, but she has been living there for the past six years. “I remember when we were being called to come to Finke, I saw a picture of the town and I laughed because it’s all red, red, red,” she jokes.
Jubilee and her husband, Mancel, are volunteers running the only church in the community. They actually live in the back of the church building, so being spiritual leaders, it is their full- time job to have a positive influence on people. Jubilee has been a shelter for many people in the community, especially women and children. “I started to mingle more with the locals for two main reasons. First, the children love to come here and then the parents end up coming too, and second because of my plants”, she says. Growing up in a place with no doctors around, Jubilee learned from her mother how to use leaves for various health issues. “Some of them, especially the old ladies, have sore backs, sore arms, and they come here asking me to help them by making plant remedies.”
Because Jubilee and Mancel work as volunteers in the church, they need to find ways to provide for themselves. Jubilee is very creative and she came up with an idea. The local supermarket in Finke closes every day at 4 pm, and after that, the locals have nowhere they can buy any food. So Jubilee began to sell snacks and candy from the servery in her kitchen. But conflicted by the fact that she was contributing to an unhealthy diet in the community, she created a healthy plot twist. “At first, when I started to sell it, I noticed that the children and some grownups had constant runny noses. So I decided to add some vitamin C to the candy. We also sell popcorn, and instead of seasoning with chicken salt, we add salt with turmeric, and they love it!”. After making these changes, she noticed that the children no longer had running noses. “I used to hand them tissues every time they came to the servery, but after consuming the healthier options, they didn’t need them anymore!”
"Not having my mum and dad's love made me feel so bad about myself that I thought no one would ever love me," confesses Matthew. His parents had drinking issues, and since they were constantly under the influence, Matthew grew up feeling alone and lost in the world. At that time, he was living in Charles Creek. Touched by his situation, his older sisters decided to bring him to Finke to live with them and receive a good education. Finke is a noteworthy aboriginal settlement because it is a dry community. That means that alcohol and other drugs are not allowed inside the town. So by living there, Matthew was given the possibility of having a healthier and safer life.
Studying in Finke with good teachers and a lot of friends, he started to see and understand how a child should be growing up, with a caring family. Even though he didn’t have his parents around, the school and the community provided him with guidance and a sense of belonging. “I loved going to school, because I had a lot of good, strong teachers who taught me how to walk in life, to be strong,” he says. That is why he refers to his community as his family. And because he is grateful to them, he decided to give back by helping other children who also feel lost.
Now, as the Youth Centre Coordinator, Matthew is responsible for providing fun and healthy activities for children, teenagers and young adults in their spare time. “In the Youth Centre, I keep children busy with fun activities, so they don’t feel bored, or like they don’t have anything interesting to do here. Because when they are not provided with valuable activities, it’s expected they will find something else to do, and most of the time, they will not be doing productive things,” he explains.
Be it through playing basketball, football, music, or even talking and spending time together, Matthew hopes that he can provide for these children, what his teachers provided for him: guidance. “When I’m helping my young families, it also helps me. Because I feel that I’m doing something, I’m contributing to something,” he states. With four children of his own, Matthew wants to be an example as they observe his dedication toward them. “Everyday I try my best to be a good father and a role model for them, so they know that they can count on me, and that will give them confidence through life.”
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