Amber Stewart is a teacher from Dirranbandi in the Balonne Shire of South West Queensland. With drought devastating her town over the last eight years, she set out to give her community something to smile about.
That’s how the Christmas Project was born. Amber and her friend Sian Hardie wanted to create an opportunity for their community to rise above their immediate circumstances and come together to celebrate their endurance, toughness and shared spirit in the face of challenges like drought.
With the help of a $60,000 Tackling Tough Times Together grant from the Foundation for Rural and Regional Renewal, Amber and Sian were able to put some Christmas spark back into their town.
At 24, Amber has lived through two floods before watching the drought drain the colour from Dirranbandi and the local economy slowly decline. On top of that, she saw the mental health of farmers, business owners, and townspeople deteriorate.
“When my parents took over the family business running the local service station, we were stuck in the depths of drought. The service station relies heavily on the cotton and wheat industry – when the seasons are good, there are more contract workers and truck drivers in town. But the drought and the lack of crops meant that our customer base reduced dramatically. Hours had to be cut for our workers, and bills were harder to keep on top of,” Amber said.
The water shortages and lack of rain for farmers meant poor crops and destocking, which led to decreased employment opportunities and a lack of cash flow into small businesses in town. The loss of work also meant that some families left and school numbers dropped.
“The scariest thing is watching your friends not know what will happen to them or their farms in the future,” Amber said.
For young people in particular, the issue of unemployment presents a crossroads. When there are no jobs in town or on the farms, graduates have to look elsewhere.
She said another challenge for young people in Dirranbandi is social isolation – with people leaving to look for further education or work and without the luxuries of 24-hour services, it’s hard not to feel alone at times.
“Sian and I agreed that now more than ever, we all needed to look out for each other and to be in each other’s company – to smile, catch up, and get away from our own struggles for a bit,” Amber said.
The Christmas Project
Christmas has always been a special time in Dirranbandi. During the drought, many farmers put up their own roadside decorations to help boost morale along the highway. However, these decorations stopped when you reached town.
“Taking inspiration from our farmers, Sian came up to with the idea of continuing their spirit by putting permanent tree lights up in town, and bringing in a Christmas tree with hand-made decorations from the community,” Amber said.
The first Christmas Project event was literally brought to light on 22 November, 2019.
With 200 attendees from all over Balonne Shire, choir performances, an encouraging talk about mental health and a free barbecue put on by the Council, the evening was a shining success.
“I received many comments on the night, and after, about what a beautiful event and space we had created. I felt very much fulfilled when looking out into the crowd – seeing their smiles while listening to the carollers under the lights of our donated Christmas tree,” Amber said.
“The best thing about the Christmas Project is that it was community built. It was the locals who came together on a 40 degrees Celsius day, volunteering to climb trees and string up the permanent and solar Christmas lights.
“Cubbie Station welded, painted and donated a community Christmas tree, and craned it into town. The kindy children painted presents to go underneath. The school choir, our Deputy Mayor and a local singer came to sing carols. We had hand-welded decorations made by the people of Dirranbandi and members of the community came to volunteer their time to run the barbeque,” Amber said.
“Our hope for this project is to have it continue annually, to bring renewed hope to our town, and to remind us that we’re all in this together.
“Both Sian and I are grateful every time we pass the permanent tree lights our main street.”