Australia has long gone by the moniker of the ‘lucky country’, but for hundreds of outback Queensland families, luck is as absent as rain.
Families are struggling under the enormous weight of crippling debt, financial insecurity, isolation and hopelessness.
It’s a heartbreaking scene played out across South West Queensland where outback school chaplain Les Penrose serves.
It’s what makes his role in the bush so unique – and so necessary.
“Our economy here is very depressed. We’ve got businesses going broke. Farmers have no money coming in, which means local businesses aren’t making any money either,” Chappy Les says.
“There is great resilience in the people here,” he adds, “but that resilience is being tested – and it’s impacting the children.”
Cattle farmers are among the hardest hit.
Suicides are not uncommon – particularly for those who’ve been forced to make the grim choice of putting their cattle down, to spare them from wasting away.
“These are cows you’ve raised since birth, and you love them,” Les explains.
It’s a scenario that the outback chaplain has witnessed firsthand.
“I was speaking with some of our teachers who told me about a young fella who’d been mucking up at school. He was actually on suspension at the time.
“They told me that they’d asked his family [who are cattle farmers] to come in and pick up his school work, but nobody came. So the teachers asked if I could deliver it.”
Les learned that the young man had been staying at his Aunt and Uncle’s house in town.
“I had a chat with them and gave them the school work. They asked if I could go and talk with the boy’s parents because they were doing it really tough,” says Les.
Armed with three boxes full of groceries donated to him by a local church, Les headed out to the family’s property.
“When I got there we had a bit of pastoral conversation. They shared with me about their lives. Then as dad’s gone off to the bathroom, the mum says, ‘the real problem is we’ve got to shoot our cattle’.
“She explained that several had already died and it was only a matter of time before the rest suffered the same fate. I went out to see them. They were just skin and bone. The dad had already dug a trench, but didn’t have the heart to do the deed,” recalls Chappy Les.
Seeing the pain the family were going through, Les offered to take care of it.
It’s not the type of thing the big-hearted school chaplain likes to talk about, but he knew the difference it would make to a family who were already suffering enough.
The family were grateful. Les also followed up with their son to help him navigate some of the struggles he was having. Today, that same young man has finished school, found a job, and is doing well. As for the family, they too are doing much better, says Chappy Les.
“I saw dad in town recently. He came up to me, shook my hand, and we had a short chat. I asked how the family were. He said, ‘a bit better mate’.”
Not much needed to be said. But for Chappy Les, seeing a man who not long ago could only look despondently at the dining room table as he spoke of his family’s struggles, to now confidently greeting him in the street, spoke volumes to the power of hope.
Through your support, school chaplains in regional and remote locations are supporting children and their families as they struggle against overwhelming odds.
You are bringing a glimmer of hope into the lives of families at times where hope is all they can cling to. Keep this support going and visit suqld.org.au/donate.
*Out of respect for the family’s wishes, we have not named them, nor provided the specific region they are from.