By Greg Allen Pretty
Written for Connect Well East Gippsland + Wellington
The Dargo community got together to celebrate Christmas 2020 last December, which wasn’t actually the plan. They would normally gather for ‘Christmas in July’ but the Covid pandemic pushed it back.
The mental health initiative was eagerly anticipated after three years of bushfires, drought and the pandemic. Like many in the region, the good folk of the Dargo district were keen to get out and see each other while enjoying a beautifully cooked meal.
The Christmas community lunch was driven by the Dargo Bush Nursing Centre with support from ‘Connect Well’ East Gippsland and Wellington – a partnership of local health organisations that are working together to promote mental wellbeing in Wellington and East Gippsland Shires.
The lunch project was funded through the Connect Well Community Building Fund which invests in community resilience and strength in the face of recent, current and future challenges.
Event coordinator, Sue Neale, said a happy mix of people in their 30s through to retirees were thrilled to be out among old and new friends, after being locked-up at home and on their farms due to Covid restrictions. And they’re still talking about the lunch event six months later!
“The anecdotal feedback has been so positive,” Sue said.
“It came just at the right time, after a difficult period – not only because of the pandemic, but many were farmers who had faced the challenges of the drought, and community members in general who found themselves under a bushfire threat.”
The words of guest speaker Warren Davies rang true for many. The challenges faced by the author of ‘The Unbreakable Farmer’ resonated with the attendees, as he described how his successful farming operation turned to failure more than once.
Warren is a city boy who bought a farm. He eagerly jumped into his new life but then discovered the harsh reality of things like high interest rates, low commodity prices, and flood and drought. It all had a massive impact on Warren and his young family. For the sake of his mental health he had no choice but to walk off the land.
“Warren had to deal with anxiety and depression,” Sue said, “but he sought help, fought through it and never gave up.”
At Dargo, Warren talked about ‘Resilience, Persistence and Determination’, as he does all around the country.
Reflecting on his address that day, Warren said he came to Dargo almost as “one of them”.
“I’m just a normal bloke,” Warren said.
“I’m a dad and a son and a brother and a mate… I’m just a normal bloke.
“I’m not a professional, like a doctor or psychologist. I’m more like a conduit who empowers people to share their own mental health stories.
“If I share mine, it gives other people permission to share theirs and to inspire conversations,” Warren said.
Sue Neale said her lunch guests “really related to Warren’s experience and gained from hearing how he turned things around – not just on his farm, but personally.”
“It connected with people on various levels,” Sue said.
Held on 10 December, the lunch had fewer guests than hoped due to Covid restrictions, which were just beginning to ease. But the 45 who were there enjoyed a hot roast and desert, nicely prepared by the staff at the Dargo Hotel.
Previous ‘Christmas in July’ lunches were hosted at the hotel but this time it was in a more neutral venue, the Dargo Public Hall, which really put the guests at ease. The meal preparation began at the hotel, then was completed in the hall’s well-equipped kitchen.
“It was a true community effort,” Sue said.
“Not only was the hotel involved, but also the general store and other local businesses, making it a very inclusive local event.
“The store provided Christmas cakes, beverages and sweets and there were prizes and gifts from other businesses.
“And the hall committee did a wonderful job with the Christmas decorations!”
“Everyone pitched-in, with businesses and individuals working together, which added to the positive community feel of the event – which was very important after the Covid restrictions, bushfires and drought had dampened the spirits of so many in our small community.
“That, and just the feeling of reconnecting with friends and neighbours, made it a very happy time.”
Dargo locals are hoping that ‘Christmas in July’ returns to its traditional month this year, as they’re not keen to wait until December for the next one! With the hope of lighter Covid restrictions this time, a larger attendance is almost guaranteed.