As a penultimate-year Bachelor of Arts (Anthropology)/Laws (Hons) student at The Australian National University (ANU), you could be forgiven for thinking Chloe Harpley has enough on her plate during an already challenging year. However, her commitments do not stop there.
Having witnessed the impact of the bushfires and COVID-19 pandemic, Chloe was determined to make a difference to rural, regional and remote (RRR) communities hit particularly hard by these disasters. Her solution? Books for the Bush, a project that aims to help affected school communities in the Riverina and South Coast communities of New South Wales.
In this Q&A, Chloe discusses how the project is making a valuable difference to students' lives and how you can help.
1. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your journey from Wagga to studying at the ANU?
I was born and raised in Wagga, on Wiradjuri land. Like most country kids, I couldn’t wait for the opportunity to move away and experience something bigger. However, coming from a working-class background and being the first in my family to attend university, I grew up with an awareness that my options for higher education were somewhat limited. Thankfully, I was lucky enough to be awarded the Tuckwell Scholarship, which enabled me to move to Canberra and begin my university adventure at Bruce Hall in 2016.
2. What is Books for the Bush?
Books for the Bush is a charity initiative that supports regional, rural and remote communities impacted by the disastrous 2019-20 bushfire season. We aim to promote educational equity, economic sustainability and positive mental health in bushfire-affected regions of Australia by providing: grants, items and services to individuals and families in need, schools, charities, or other organisations working on similar missions. Primarily, we distribute essential school supplies and books, but as crises have compounded, we’ve evolved to also be sending out winter clothing, linen, second-hand laptops, and masks. In the future, we aim to fund and organise a number of community-based events to build morale and solidarity.
3. What inspired you to create this initiative?
I started Books for the Bush in January. I was back home in Wagga for Christmas when the Dunn’s Road fire near Tumbarumba started. I soon came back to Canberra, which was beginning to fill with smoke from the South Coast fires. Honestly, I was distraught watching the horror unfold. But there was one thought I couldn’t shake: if this is how I, a 22-year-old, is feeling, then how must the kids be coping?
And so, Books for the Bush was born. I could never have anticipated the year of crisis to come.
4. How many people have you been able to help?
We began by helping three schools: Walwa Primary in Victoria, Tumbarumba High School in the Riverina region, and Carroll College in Broulee. From there, we started supporting individual families, and due to my book-keeping skills being subpar during that period, it’s a bit hard to know how many families we directly helped – it’s a bit of a blur.
After the fires, many of the areas that were decimated were hit by floods, so we responded to that. Then, the pandemic brought us more fear, with the added difficulty of schools being closed. How were kids meant to learn from home without a laptop or iPad, or sharing one device between five or six kids? How must they feel trying to learn, after so much disruption, when they’re still living in a tent, or a caravan, or a smoke-damaged house? Since lockdown restrictions began, we’ve filled 70 requests for assistance, primarily from families, but also a dozen or so schools, childcare centres, and community outreach centres.
Now, with COVID-19 spreading to regional centres, the demand for reusable fabric masks is high. We’ve already distributed around 100, with a team of volunteers busily sewing them in both Canberra and Wagga. Another 100 have been given to ANU Medical Students doing placements in rural, regional and remote hotspots.
We’ve supported families from all over: Cobargo, Mallacoota, Tumut, Nambucca, Towamba, Bowraville and all the way to Kangaroo Island, among many, many others.
Children from Walwa Primary School, Victoria receiving their Books for the Bush packs. Photo: Supplied.
5. What are your hopes for the future of Books for the Bush?
Books for the Bush, with the help of a team of ANU Law volunteers, is looking to formalise our structure and move towards being a registered not-for-profit.
To be honest, I haven’t had the time to really sit down and map out our trajectory. We’re still very much in 'crisis mode', and it looks like we’ll be in this position for the foreseeable future. Not only with COVID-19, but it’s the middle of August: we’re also looking down the barrel of another bushfire season. The deadlines for the Royal Commission and State inquiries have both been pushed back until mid- to late October; the 2019-20 bushfire season began in November. With the pandemic, the disastrous rains and floods just this week on the South Coast forcing towns to evacuate again, I’m anxious about how we’ll get through what’s to come. Communities are fatigued, as are those who have been on the front-lines for the last 8-10 months.
But community organisations like Books for the Bush, and the other incredible ones that have sprung to life in the face of hardship, are essential. The gaps and failures of the establishment – traditional charities and avenues for government support, both State and Federal – have been exposed by these crises. We aim to keep in conversation with rural, regional and remote communities and provide them with the support they need through these trying times; that’s our only agenda.
6. How can others get involved and help?
There’s a myriad of things to be involved in, ranging from:
- helping with fundraising online, or in your community;
- being a leader on a project (like our upcoming arts-based, live story-sharing event in Cobargo, or suggest one of your own!);
- sewing masks for fire-affected communities that are now hotspots;
- organising sponsorship;
- social media operations and/or graphic design;
- joining our student legal volunteer group;
- joining our Committee; and
- administrative tasks;
Books for the Bush runs quite autonomously. I’m always open to collaboration, especially with motivated individuals and organisations with knowledge in working in the RRR, with Aboriginal communities, with children, and dealing with traumatic events.
If any of this resonates with you, please get in touch with your ideas.