Care Outreach Australia is a Christian organisation with a heart for people doing it tough in the outback. Their hundred volunteers serve 2,000 Queensland families with visits, food hampers, property and domestic help, and invaluable spiritual support.
Today, we’re revisiting an interview with directors and founders Bill and Melissa Close. Shelley Scowen caught up with them in 2014 to talk about the challenges of reaching people in remote areas, the tragedies and miracles they’ve seen, and their annual Christmas for the Bush campaign.
The Closes both grew up in the country. Melissa was born on a cane farm on the coast, while Bill was raised in Bairnsdale, and later on a dairy farm in Gippsland. They’re not nearly as isolated as the areas they serve now. “But you still understand a lot of the battles that people face on the land,” Bill said.
It’s easy to imagine that those battles are fairly similar from family to family, but in reality, people in the country face struggles as complicated and unique as those we face in the city. “That’s something we’ve found with this work. A lot of people ask us what exactly do you do? But it’s as diverse as people can possibly be.”
The Care Outreach project began more by accident than design. “I quite often say to people I think we stumbled across it more than we discovered it. We were travelling around Australia. At that particular time, I was speaking to youth groups and things like that, all around the countryside.”
“I actually remember going through little country towns, and thinking to myself, I wonder if these people have ever had a chance to hear the gospel at any stage. I wonder how these people handle the battles that life throws at them.”
A couple of weeks before Christmas, Bill and Melissa had a cancelation in their itinerary. With the drought filling the headlines, they decided to make a spontaneous trip west, to see if there was anything they could do.
“One of our very first properties we called in on, we came across a situation where there was a lady and a number of kids, and we found out that her husband had just committed suicide a couple of days before, and they were absolutely devastated. We walked straight into this, which was an absolute shock to us.”
Bill and Melissa spent some time with the family, helping them in ways which would go on to inspire the Care Outreach model. “We set up a Christmas tree in their lounge, and put presents under the tree, and just helped them do a few things around the property.”
At the next property they visited, they found a very similar situation, only this time, it was an eighteen-year-old boy who’d taken his own life. “And I got to the gate after that, and I thought, oh God, you’ve got to help us find these people. This just shouldn’t be happening. That was the real driving force behind Care Outreach today.”
Suicide rates in rural Australia are significantly higher than the national average. Studies have found that Queensland’s agricultural workers, most of whom live in rural areas, are twice as likely to commit suicide as the rest of the working population. Bill says it can be hard to understand what drives people to such despair.
“What happens, I believe, over a period of time, is they just end up under so much pressure, they don’t think things through properly, and they don’t think of the consequences. They just get to a point where they’re so braindead. They get to a place where they’re not thinking straight. And it causes them to do things that they probably would never normally do.”
But the Closes have many stories of people they’ve saved from the worst, often at the last possible moment. “I’ve even rocked up at a property, and another half an hour would have been too late. There’s a big pile of tablets sitting on the coffee table.”
“If there’s one miracle that we regularly see in our ministry, it’s turning up in the right place at the right time. That’s something that the Lord really seems to move in our lives.”
Bill described how some families have been extremely unlucky, hit by successive droughts and floods which leave them unable to pay their way. “For a lot of the people, they’ve just been getting hammered, over and over and over again with circumstances.”
“Our job has really been just going out there, picking them up, encouraging them. It’s being a mate, it’s being a friend, it’s loving on them, it’s ministering to them, it’s being there for them.”
A lot of Care Outreach’s recent work has involved bulk food drops in the areas hardest hit. “Sometimes it’s sending out a load of Haigh, sometimes it’s a load of feed. Sometimes it’s working on the properties, doing things with them, doing things that they need to get done, like fencing, and repairs, things like that. There’s lots of different ways that we’re touching people out there.”
Care Outreach services an area of around 1,500 by 800 kilometres. It’s a huge area, and it keeps all their hundred volunteers very busy. But on a map, it only amounts to a quarter of the state of Queensland, a daunting reminder of how many people need help, and the huge challenge of getting that help to them.
“We do realise that a lot of it is a bit too big for us,” Bill said. “But our main thing is the people. We’re there for the people, and we’re there for that moral support, and encouragement, and standing with them. We do what we can do, and what we can’t do, we trust God like mad, that somehow or other we might be able to do something.”
Shelley used a metaphor of starfish washed up on the sand. You know you can’t save them all, but you can pick up one, and take it back into the sea. “Sometimes it just gets that full on,” Bill admitted. “You think how can we keep up with this? But you do. You just focus on one situation at a time, one family at a time, one person at a time, one property at a time.”
Care Outreach’s volunteers are a mix of people living in their service area, and people who fly in from other places. Rural volunteers are more available to the people they’re helping, and visits are less expensive to arrange. “But having said that too, a lot of times we find that locals don’t necessarily share intimate situations with locals. They prefer to talk to someone that’s right out of the area.”
None of Care Outreach’s work would be possible without God’s help. You just scratch your head some days, and we wonder how we do it all. But somehow or other it seems to happen, and somehow or other he seems to make a way for our volunteers to get out there.”
“It literally is a miracle day by day, what happens, the amount of aid that we can achieve, and the amount we can touch people.”
Over the years, Bill and Melissa have grown to love the people of the outback. “A lot of the families, they’re amazing people, as in they’re resilient, but they’re always so friendly, so welcoming. And you definitely make lifetime friends out of them. To go and visit them, it’s like catching up with family.”
Perhaps it was that sense of family which inspired Care Outreach’s biggest annual project, the Christmas for the Bush campaign. Starting in the last week of November, it’s a three-week long undertaking, which pushes Care Outreach to its limits, as volunteers visit every family on their database, face-to-face.
“We try and get around them,” Melissa explained, “to have a visit, spend some time with them, give them some Christmas cheer. Because as Bill shared earlier, every family is in a different situation. And so there’s different needs. Some aren’t as needy, and you just go and catch up and visit them, take them a Christmas cake or a tin of bickies or something like that.”
“But there’s other families that are really struggling. And so we put together a Christmas food hamper. We’ll do gifts, toiletries, whatever the situation may be. It is tailored family by family.”
It’s a great opportunity to offer hope and encouragement, but it’s also a chance to remind people that Care Outreach are there, and that they do care. “They might forget the name Care Outreach,” Melissa said, “but they know us by the blue shirts. And word gets around quick that the blue shirts are back in town.”
Shelley remembered a phone call to the station from a girl celebrating her sixteenth birthday. She was especially excited because her next-door neighbours, who lived an hour and a half’s drive away, were coming to visit. Melissa says that, especially recently, the letters of thanks to Care Outreach have implied the profound isolation some of these families must feel.
“They’re saying thank you so much for the goods you gave us, whether it be a hamper, or gifts, or whatever. But more than that, it’s the fact that you came. It’s the fact that you drove all that way to come and visit us, and spend time with us, to show us that you care.”
Isolation has a profound impact on almost every aspect of life. Even faith becomes harder, without support. The chance to gain that strength from the body of Christ is another invaluable part of what Care Outreach offers people. “They could be travelling one or two hours just to get to church, to have that time of fellowship.”
“So to have someone come to them, that they can just have a great time of fellowship, talk about the Lord, just share things of what they’re going through, and have someone pray with them. It just means so much to them.”
Care Outreach are always looking for help with their work. They need contributions of non-perishable foods, toiletries, and gift items for people of all ages. Care Outreach is a registered charity, so all monetary donations are tax-deductible. Click here for more details about how to donate.