The Power of People By Tara Wesson

Eighty students. Ten towns. Nine days. How do I put this experience into words? The Big Lift has left me speechless and full of emotion. Life feels different. It’s been two months since I got back to Sydney and over that time, I’ve been thinking a lot about how I’ve been affected by this trip. But here’s what it is: The Big Lift has made me realise the power of people. Over the nine days, I had encounters that left me feeling empowered and loved. Here are just a few.

I think I realised pretty early on how much I loved the wandering conversations with the locals. The residents of Peak Hill, of Trangie and Walgett, and Tenterfield and Blackbutt, had an unforgettable energy and filled the towns’ spaces with spiritedness and wit. It was refreshing to see.

In Peak Hill, it was Pat Norris. Postman, president of the radio station and member of the tourism committee, he plans to soon open a cafe on Peak Hill’s main stretch. He showed all forty of us into the cafe that he was so proud of. He told us to work hard and never give up.

It was Liz Mackay, a nurse at the hospital in Trangie. As we talked about the effect that forty young people had on the community, we got into a heartening discussion about her older patients, most of whom were quite lonely and always liked a chat.

“It’s a rewarding thing to be able to converse with elderly people and I think it’s really fulfilling for the elderly to be able to talk to the young ones”, she said.

At a primary school in Tenterfield I spoke to Wayne Lusty.

“L-U-S-T-Y,” he spelt for me, chuckling. He was definitely a character! He was an older man, wiry limbed and bearded. He was full of stories, wisdom and funny anecdotes. After covering topics of his family and weirdly, Shakespeare, he said this, with a sincerity that really stuck —
“I’d just personally like to say thank you to each and every one of you, because it just takes a workload off some of us as well... I just think it’s one of the best things in the world.”

By travelling through the towns and getting to know the locals, we also got to know each other. So it was: on this thirty-three hour bus trip I made a family. I’d only met one other person on the bus before we left, but by the end, I considered all thirty-six of them family. We bonded over bus conversations and riddles, stupid jokes and pretty sunsets. On various occasions, every single one of them amazed me with their capacity for kindness and wonder.

On our morning in Walgett we were painting at a primary school. I think this was when I finally caught the volunteering bug. We were laughing about the perfectionism we were all showing over the hopscotch we were painting, but it felt so lovely to care so much. There was a wonderful feeling of mutual goodness flowing among us as we all imagined the children’s future reactions.

“I just don’t want anything back, I’m just doing this one hundred per cent for the purpose of giving... it’s very easy to think about yourself and I think volunteering really opens your eyes and allows you to look at the people around you, like, this is not about me, this is about something bigger than that,” said Oli, one participant.

“When we do something for the school, we’re helping the children.”

In Tenterfield I spoke with Katy and Trina, participants who’d gone to garden for a ninety-six year old woman. They said they’d ended up spending most of the time talking over a cup of tea. “Though we were there for the gardening, the thing that impacted her the most was the company we gave her,” said Katy.

On our last morning volunteering in Blackbutt, there was a wonderfully warm and flowing sense of ease among us. I felt like volunteering was just so much fun. But then, I felt like anything would have been fun with this group. As we coated a deck in oil and cleaned out a shed, we listened to music, and chatted to the locals and each other. Here, I spoke to Marg Moult, a local volunteer.

“We’re all trying to do things for other people in life and that’s what you’re doing. And that’s wonderful... everybody should give,” Marg says.

It’s been through these encounters that I’ve realised how easily I can give. Every morning in the towns, we gave the service projects our absolute best. Schools were painted! Tennis courts were weeded! It was always about doing what the town needed. I’d talk with participants afterward and they, too, felt the beautiful sense of community that came from volunteering. In those conversations I’d always come away wanting to be more like my new friends. That is, kinder, softer and more mindful of others.

I gave a flower to a stranger on the Gold Coast. I told him to pass it on. Twenty minutes later I saw another woman with it. It felt incredible to know that my kindness, so simply and easily given, had been passed on.

In moments like those I’ve written about, people are powerful.

“We are very very lucky. None of us are rich. But we’re rich in more than things. We’re rich in friendships. On this group, you’re all friends."

“Friendship, we’re rich in it.”