On Thursday 12th and Friday 13th December Ian Salmon, Parry Monckton and Tim  Shay  visited Muswellbrook in the upper Hunter Valley.
 
We joined the Muswellbrook Club for dinner on Thursday night and met the President, John Hobden and other key members of the Club. The Club has about 20 members. We met about 10 members. They were very welcoming to all of us and also introduced us to members eg their member who is head of the chamber of commerce in the town. They are very keen for us to adopt them.
 
The Club has been involved in the distribution of hay for farmers in 2018/2019 and has raised $50,000 for this. This is especially in badly affected areas in a hundred kilometre or so radius.  They distributed a lot of hay by club members personally, but had some issues with a few who were not worthy. In view of this and now a severe lack of actual stock on farms, having been sold, they have preferred to concentrate on giving out Voucher cards for spending  only in local businesses as the preferred option to help.  Those businesses are very much affected by the drought as well as farmers, as local farmers have no money to support those businesses. The distribution of these cards can also be tightly controlled by local members of the other surrounding Rotary clubs and other organisations who are themselves “in the know” who is most needy . This helps local businesses as well as the recipients.
 
There are many ways in which we can partner with the Muswellbrook Rotary Club in helping them do this in fund raising activities or events, hands on, and building fellowship.  We explored some of their activities for the future such as just one example:   a STEM camp run by the University of Newcastle for year 11 and 12 students from local area high schools in June running for  3 days. The cost is about $ 300 each but where we might help them on those days to help run the events. . 
 
On Friday, John and Gary spent all day driving us to surrounding towns Merriwa and Murrurundi.  It was an opportunity to see just first hand how pitifully dry and desolate the whole landscape of the upper Hunter is. There is no grass,  just dust and dirt, trees dying everywhere and no stock to be found in hundreds of kilometres. It is truly heart breaking!  Very difficult to describe how awful it really is.
 
At Merriwa we had morning tea with members of the Rotary Club of Merriwa, and in particular John Sparrow, the President. These people were nearly all local farmers as well as members of Rotary Merriwa farmers. Again the reception and friendliness was wonderful.  
 
They distribute vouchers in conjunction with the Muswellbrook Rotary Club. These vouchers are often targeted at particular businesses. For example, chemists. In one case we were told of a husband and wife who were each requiring medication. Because of their circumstances, only one could afford the medication so the other had to go without. The Club managed to organise vouchers with the chemist so that both the husband and wife could afford the medication. They have also been involved in hay distribution. The feeling was, that at this stage of the drought hay distribution was wasn't really going to be of much benefit as most farmers would have run down their stock to low or zero levels. 
 
Along the way, we discovered the Merriwa Club does a bicycle event similar to our Bobbo in the Merriwa hills. The next one will be on the 8th March 2020. Perhaps our club would help  support that event and then they could support ours too!
 
We also met Maria Cameron. She works as a Land Services Officer - Regional Drought Support for the New South Wales Government but is an absolute gem! She not only lives on the land herself locally but visits every single property ( 4000!) in the area as part of her job. She knows first hand and keeps a very confidential list of those that can mostly be helped in the whole area. We discussed amongst other things mental health issues, suicides, and how the farmers women and men and school kids can best be helped.   Maria has been organising trade courses for farmers ( who are not able to do much on their land at the moment with no stock and bare barren hillsides, to acquire skills eg welding  etc and which  also has a separate agenda in helping those farmers ( especially men) just getting together to have fun and learn  providing psychological support at the same time in the form of courses and social get togethers. Our clubs could get together and go and help at one of these workshops and have dinner with all of them. ( there is a wonderful local venue for this Brindley Park!!!)
 
One possibility is for Turramurra Rotary to just go to Merriwa to support the community and businesses.  Maybe on a weekend. Just get a bus together or go up and go shopping! And hand out the cards! Or just buy stuff to support the town businesses There is quite good accommodation available.
 
We then went to Murrurundi.
This town is on level 6 water restrictions and has been since July 2018. 
We visited Justine Cooper and her team of volunteers. It is truly awe inspiring what they do!!
 
Justine runs an operation called the Pop-Up Pantry in a little local old weatherboard church ( part of the museum). Supplies and money are donated from all over NSW including individuals or charities or schools or small groups charities , scout groups and from everywhere including Sydney. The volunteers help sort those supplies  and then stack and sort onto the shelves for the local Murrurundi farmers and most needy people to simply come and shop for free, two days a week. They come from far away flung locations in the Upper Hunter not just the local town. When they don’t have something donated ( they don’t keep perishables at all) they give cards or direct then to the one local supermarket. Justine simply buys from the local supermarket to stock items in short supply if they don’t have it and is bought for needy farm families. This can be a sensitive operation as farm families are often embarrassed about receiving help. Originally the family would come and collect groceries from the Pop-Up Pantry only at night. This is now a bit more relaxed and they can now feel comfortable to come during the day. Demand for groceries and supplies is ever increasing.
 
But the worst problem is literally no water! The Pop-Up Pantry also buys and supplies water to needy farmers who have literally no water and reliant only on their bone dry water tanks and dams .  They have no money to put down bores ( about $10000 and not necessarily successful!) .
 
Justine and her volunteers just hand out 10 liter containers of drinking water on a Saturday morning to those needy who pull up and they put it in their vehicle. The next three weeks is earmarked for mostly doing just this.
 
Justine spends  in each case,  $400 for 30 kilolitres of potable water to be carted by a local business to put into  rain water tanks. . There is no charge to families who are in need and these volunteers know who is needy. They don’t ask questions they just do it and Justine’s phone never stops ringing. She isn’t even eligible for government donated money! ( which can only be accessed for mental health programs !)
 
In the short term we could give money, write a cheque, go shopping for groceries  put them in a trailer and drive up there. Or shop in the town and give it to the pantry. Or buy water!
 
 
 
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