500 communities, 1300 volunteers cris-crossing rural and remote Australia offering everything from diaster support to a friendly ear and a cuppa. Meet this week’s inspiring woman, Davida Melksham of Outback Links.

This Like so many other women who wear many hats, I often struggle to come up with a suitable introduction.  Quite simply, it is a case of one size does not nearly fit all!  So, in no particular order – accidental but active resident of the Murweh Shire, grown-up Bush Kid, first-born of a large chaotic family, wife of Lance, lover of music and words, supporter of Country Racing, passionate advocate of the human face of remote Australia and lastly my ‘day job’ and great passion, Co-Ordinator of Outback Links – heading up a network that exists purely to support and enrich the lives of rural Australians.

A cross between nailing jelly to a mulga tree and herding cats…

Husband Lance and I at the YardsIn 2007 I left the comfort of a job I was trained to do, and loved – running an Early Childhood mobile service, to take up a new challenge. I found myself connecting people facing the extremes of rural life, with skilled and supported volunteers in a way that could sustain and encourage them at minimal cost.  Common sense suggested that helping remote families who really needed extra hands, rather than hand-outs had merit.

As a child growing up on a station, we were never done having visitors – retired grandparents, friends of friends, a young bloke or two who needed “straightening out, friends with children over school holidays.  Seemingly though, in a generation, the stream of visitors coming to experience station life, has much diminished.

Pausing on the wool bales at Noella with Mischa PartonLife is busy, Natural Disasters occur necessitating recovery and building resilience and there is the impact of changes in the resource sector. In many areas there is a shortage of young people, or indeed any people to capacity build resilient community.  In other places, there has been a need to seek off-farm income.  There does seem to be a gap in genuine understanding between Urban and Rural people in our country and one of the things I love about Outback Links is that it makes a practical difference, while narrowing that gap, and indeed recruiting advocates for remote Australia among our city-dwelling counterparts.

On any given day, I can be undertaking any of the following, and much else besides:-

  • Attending to the mountain of paperwork to protect everyone involved.
  • Recruiting volunteers by phone and via technology.
  • Establishing networks to encourage those who need help, to ask.
  • Telling the story – from every perspective.
  • Carefully explaining such mysteries as crutching and weaning to a retired urban-dwelling Solicitor or Botanists from the UK, to ensure there are as few gaps in understanding as possible.
  • Talking through concerns with farmers who are in drought, flood recovery or bushfires, and all extremes in between.
  • Troubleshooting!  (AKA Assuming my role as a diplomat.) People are not an exact science and as I am mostly matching volunteers whom I have never met, with support recipients whom I have also never met, despite every best effort, there’s occasionally a need to smooth ruffled feathers, or offer counsel.
  • Debriefing.
  • Referring on to other agencies of support.
  • Working with peak volunteering bodies to meet them half way with best practice guidelines which are mostly geared to short-term, urban situations.
  • Providing training.
  • Supporting volunteers to provide a link to a more familiar ‘world’.
  • Spending what seems like hours on the phone and laptop.

Volunteer Dee Williams sorts resources for Flood RecoveryMy work with Outback Links now means that the program co-ordinates almost 1300 volunteers.  When I took on the Co-Ordinators role in a part-time capacity in 2007, the service had just over 100 volunteers.  Now, almost half a dozen years down a sometimes dusty, sometimes wet, track, the program has had significant growth.  In the last calendar year, we placed assistance with over 500 communities and stations the length and breadth of the country, crossing boundaries (and floods, bushfires and deserts) to do so.

It’s a simple concept about practical help, and about connection, but some days, it definitely resembles something akin to nailing jelly to a one of the Mulga trees out here, to get it all to work.  My enduring love is that I work with the best people in the country – farmers, graziers, workers in rural health and indigenous communities, and skilled and willing volunteers who give so generously to travel thousands of kilometres to connect with someone who could use a hand.  From the outside, I know it looks a little like YouTube clip ‘Cowboys herding Cats’ but sometimes being flexible and innovative is what makes it all work.  I was asked recently by a Mum we’d helped, “What’s it feel like to have a magic wand?”  Although my response was to laugh about it, on my way out the door I considered how often I ask the impossible, and rarely get told no, and the thought crossed my mind that I have an impossibly good outlook on life, and in particular, the human condition!

Davida Melksham

For further information – www.outbacklinks.org or phone 1300 731 349