St Arnaud Neighbourhood House
Stories otherwise lost forever have been innovatively preserved at St Arnaud Neighbourhood House. Image by HANDOUT/ST ARNAUD NEIGHBOURHOOD HOUSE

Tales could be lost to time as rural funding falters

Stephanie Gardiner June 23, 2024

One man remembered falling from a plane while serving in World War II only to be swiftly fitted with a back brace and moved to desk duties.

Women told of great romances and admired photographs of their exquisite bridal finery, some quietly revealing they had shotgun weddings.

Other aged care residents in country Victoria spoke of life on the land, when machinery was so rudimentary farmers had to hold up umbrellas while driving tractors in the summer.

They are the tales that could have been lost to time if not for a project by the St Arnaud Neighbourhood House, in the Wimmera region, that collected residents’ life stories in keepsake books.

“To see the residents’ reactions when we gave them the books, they were just so proud,” project co-ordinator Rachel Hendry told AAP.

“There were lots of tears.”

Cath Evans reading a book about her life
 Care resident Cath Evans was among those personally touched by the St Arnaud program. Image by HANDOUT/ST ARNAUD NEIGHBOURHOOD HOUSE 

The books were often kept in walking frames or on bedside tables, allowing families and staff to engage in meaningful conversations and form deeper connections.

“There were families … saying they found out a lot of new things that were never discussed, so that was very special,” Ms Hendry said.

“And when it came to their funerals … a lot of families used the books as eulogies.”

It’s these kinds of modest projects, funded by small grants from the Foundation for Rural and Regional Renewal, that make a big difference in country towns.

“Rural people want to see their communities thrive,” the foundation’s chief executive Natalie Egleton said.

“They want to be able to support those doing it tough or … host events that bring a remote community together to celebrate what makes it unique or to recover after difficult times.”

The foundation awarded more than $3.7 million in small grants worth up to $10,000 for hundreds of projects across Australia last year, including arts workshops, health programs and town hall upgrades.   

But the organisation, which is widely recognised as a significant source of regional community support, has revealed that for every 10 projects funded, one had to miss out.

The organisation had to deny 85 eligible projects due to a lack of donations.

“Every small grants round we offer is oversubscribed, meaning with few alternative funding options, many community projects are left unfunded and critical needs are left unmet,” Ms Egleton said.

“It’s not just the dollars that are missed: groups also say funding has helped them build capacity and confidence in their ability to test, learn and develop future project ideas.”

The St Arnaud program, which could not renew funding after 2022, was invaluable, Neighbourhood House manager Heather Stevenson said.

“It wasn’t just the residents, it was their families. The families were all connecting again,” she said.

“It hit so many lives.”