Harrow is situated in the Wimmera, beyond the Grampians in western Victoria, and is a relatively remote, sparsely populated area. The town is home to around a hundred people, and supports several outlying localities. Four years ago, some clever people at Harrow Bush Nursing Centre thought of an idea to celebrate the diversity of the women who have made Harrow their home, with written stories and a premier event. Once the idea was deemed “a go-er”, they asked me if I would be interested in volunteering my time to edit the written stories of participating women, which would then be compiled into a book. With no idea what a commitment – me, a commitmentphobe! – would really be required, I agreed.
That first year, I got to know the stories of five local women: one lady had been presented as a debutante to Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, and much later awarded an OAM and OLJ; two had migrated to Australia decades ago, each for quite different reasons; one had successfully taken part in the “Beaut Blokes” program (Harrow’s version of “Farmer wants a wife”); and one had recently made a “tree change” from the city with her family. The event was booked out, and the next year it was moved to the town hall to accommodate a bigger audience.
The past three events, which are held on International Rural Women’s Day, have attracted growing interest, and the program has received national notice and received a number of awards. Today’s event was the fourth, and was the culmination of many month’s work. It was my pleasure to be among the 200-strong crowd that attended for chicken and champagne luncheon (a tried and tested formula!), while listening to the stories of another five ladies (16-20 of 25 participants at the program’s completion). I never fail to be amazed at their courage to get up on stage and speak, because they are seldom accustomed to public speaking.
Sadly, one participant could not attend today; only a day after she finished her story, she was involved in a bad car accident while driving home, and has been hospitalised for the past six weeks. Fortunately, despite the severity of her injuries, she is now undergoing rehabilitation therapy and will be on her feet again soon.
My involvement with the program starts each May, when I make contact with the participants to take profile photos and help them begin the writing process. Over the next few months I usually make more visits to their homes, as their stories come together – they are allocated 2,000 words, which is a minute amount for a life story! My job, therefore, is usually to reduce their text to fit this allocation – although sometimes the stories are too brief and require “teasing out”. As editor on this project it is important to me that, while ensuring spelling, punctuation and grammar are correct, the “voice” of the individual writer is not lost, and I hope that they always feel they have been respected and truly “heard” by the time their final draft is submitted for print.
When the stories are finished, it’s then time to scan and prepare their personal photos which will accompany their stories in the Pathways To Harrow book. Once the photos are prepared and captioned, I can relax for the year, and look forward to the event in October!
This year I calculated that I spent around 50 hours on the project; it didn’t sound like that much, until I realised it averaged out to around 10 hours per month during the five months of my involvement – a contribution that I’m honoured to be able to make to my community. Until I moved to Harrow, five years ago, I had never been a volunteer. Being involved with a program like this has given me a sense of inclusion, and pride in being part of this community’s achievements. My time spent with the participants as they build up to their “moment to shine” is particularly precious to me, and I feel honoured to be on this journey with them as they put their trust in me.
I snapped this photo of our local newspaper editor, in attendance with her small daughter today. It may seem odd that I’ve chosen to feature a photo of her, not of our wonderful Pathways ladies, but this is the shot I got. It represents to me what Pathways is about: she moved into the area (the next town) with her young family a couple of years ago to take over the newspaper, which must be endlessly challenging. Maybe one day there will be similar celebrations of that town’s women.