That's the Spirit: Aileen Bell - Coonabarabran
Now retired from her long-time position as the Warrumbungle Shire’s economic development and tourism manager, Aileen Bell is a passionate Coonabarabran local, who has served the community in both a professional and personal capacity. She is a dedicated Rotarian and has been involved with countless local organisations and causes.
Jen: What’s kept you in Coonabarabran all these years?
Aileen: I think the community is what I really like about the town. I like the people. I feel comfortable in the community and it’s about being comfortable and about knowing that people care about you. As somebody said earlier today, if you’re not terribly well, people will come to the fore and be really supportive. My parents lived here for 17 years and then left Coona – after 20 years they came back and were treated like royalty.
Jen: Where were they from?
Aileen: We came from Tamworth to Coonabarabran but at first we weren’t considered to be local people.
Jen: You’ve been so involved in Coonabarabran, this is certainly home for you now, isn’t it?
Aileen: I can’t imagine living anywhere else. We looked at other places when we sold (our place out of town). We both had positions to go to down in Bathurst/Cowra area and when we were looking at houses down there, which were cheaper than Coona, we sort of looked at each other and said why are we going? We are not being run out of town, so we decided to come back and live here. And every time we go somewhere we’re always looking to see if the grass is greener on the other side of the hill – we find nice places but they’re not the same. For us, this is the community we’ve grown up in, this is where our kids have grown up; we are known and we know people. But it’s really interesting because I used to think I knew everyone, and I don’t. There’s a real changing face of our community now.
Aileen Bell, Coonabarabran
Jen: What does that changing face look like? How do you see that and is it a good thing or a bad thing or just different?
Aileen: Well, I think it’s just different. I think it’s a good thing. Coonabarabran has always been an embracing sort of community – accepting and tolerant. We have a lot of people who have alternative lifestyles who have come to live here but at the same time we also have “mainstream” people as part of the community. There are a lot of low-income people living in the area, but they all find a place for themselves and they’re happy. And if they’re happy, the rest of us can get on with what we’re doing too.
Jen: Coona seems to have really healthy resilience. Tell me about how you’ve seen that over the years.
Aileen: As a child at school, I can remember how we used to go to Coonamble and Gilgandra playing sport and they used to be big schools, compared with Coona High and yet Coona is the one school that’s stayed the same size and hasn’t diminished to any great extent. I think part of that is because people like living here. We have a lot of professional people who have come to live here and work with Siding Spring Observatory. They have been really committed to the community and they’ve educated their kids here – I think that makes a difference. And we see a lot of people living rurally who have chosen to use our school, or to bring their kids back to work the farm – they’ve become part of our community.
Coona High is also acknowledged as a great school, by both the community and by the Dept of Education, the HSC results reflect a commitment from teachers and students alike. As well as academic achievement, the school offers a range of other curricular activities that meet the needs of the kids enrolled – TAFE also works in with the school and offers Joint Schools TAFE programs for students and this also includes Work Placement Learning so all kids have opportunities to excel.
Jen: Coona has had more than its fair share of knocks. How have you seen the community pull together? Obviously the (Wambelong) bush fire in the Warrumbungles in January 2013 was a major challenge for the town.
Aileen: The bush fires was a major one, yes, but at various times with these things happening to us in our community, we’ve sort of dusted ourselves off, picked ourselves up and got on with living. I think that’s what has happened post-bush fires. People have said, yes, we did have a fire and there’s always an acknowledgement that these things happen but we keep on going forward. That makes us a stronger community too. I look at other communities around us that have lots and lots of empty shops down the main street – that doesn’t tend to happen to us as much. Somebody usually moves in pretty quickly. I saw an article recently that shows all the businesses in Coona in the early 1970s – a lot of them have gone now, but in their place other businesses have come and gone. The tourism dollar helps us and makes us feel good, but we shouldn’t be complacent about that.
We shouldn’t assume they will always keep coming because as the highway gets faster and faster so people don’t have to stop in Coona. Gone are the days when tourists came because it was a destination and they were having their annual holidays. Now we are more of a short break stop.
Aileen Bell, Coonabarabran
Jen: What has Coona done that other places may not have done – what are some of the things that maybe others could learn from Coona? Or is it just a geographical blessing?
Aileen: I think it is a geographical blessing. We are over an hour from anywhere and some people will think that’s a disadvantage but for us, economically, it’s an advantage. We do have a reputation for being a “tea and wee” stop, and there’s nothing wrong with that, nothing at all.
Jen: In this current economic and climatic downtown, how have you seen Coonabarabran respond?
Aileen: Coona has adapted to economic downturn by accepting that it’s a reality and we just have to just get on with it. During the drought, we were able to be supportive of community businesses and community farmers and I think that makes a difference because it builds and reinforces a loyalty and sense of belonging.
Jen: What are some of the things that you’ve done in the community that you feel has helped to keep it strong?
Aileen: Well Rotary, for instance, took on the mantle of drought support. Rotary acknowledged that there are people out there who need support and the club went about providing that support both financially and emotionally in a practical, no-nonsense way. And the wider Rotary fraternity was hugely supportive as well. We (The Rotary Club of Coonabarabran) have around 22 members at the moment, which is pretty healthy, and we also have a lot of “friends of Rotary” who help out with things like our bookshop and other fundraising efforts. More than half of the people who help keep the bookshop going are non-Rotarians – we have loads of willing volunteers. We accept that they are volunteers first and foremost and we accommodate their needs, even though they might not want to actually become Rotarians. I think that’s part of it, accommodating people’s needs is a really, really important thing for us to do.
Through the years I also accepted elected volunteer roles on the executive of both the NSW and national levels of State School Parent Organisations. I like to think I was able to represent my community in those organisations and shared information with my school communities that I gleaned along the way. I know I was able to attract funding for the CPS Aboriginal Literacy Program and also ran a series of workshops at Gwabegar Primary School. These things would not have happened for our communities had I not been at the funding table and argued vigorously in discussions.
I also spent some time as an elected councillor on Coonabarabran Shire Council in the early 2000s and hope my contribution aided decision making that improved the town and area. Today, in my retirement, I am on the newly-formed Town Beautification Committee – sadly it is a committee without a budget allocation.
Jen: Can you tell us a bit more about the Arts Council?
Aileen: The Arts Council had gone into remission in the ‘80s because of dwindling numbers but we still had a very active dramatic society and other groups in town. In 1994, a group of us decided to bring some “drama” into town – so to speak! – and so we reformed the Arts Council, which worked really well. The Dramatic Society had also gone into abeyance, but a small group of people reinvigorated it as well. That’s another thing for people who have a need for an artistic or creative outlet.
The Arts Council is now the umbrella organisation and we have things like the men’s choir and a physical yoga class and several other groups like the film society, which we formed so that the community could have access to films that were a little bit different, and the film nights are very popular because they bring people together. There’s nothing like seeing a film on a big screen and socialising with others at the same time.
As president of the Arts Council, I feel I’ve been able to provide a focus for the community on drama, arts, writing, concerts, films, conferences and so on, with the Crooked Mountain Concert being the major event. Sadly, it no longer occurs but in time a new event will resurface. The event attracted regional, statewide and interstate visitors to our town in a traditionally quiet period accommodation-wise.
Jen: What are the sorts of things you would like people to know about Coonabarabran – to challenge the misconceptions?
Aileen: I’d like people to understand that the town is a very welcoming town, that it acknowledges the differences and works with them and those differences. There’s a tolerance here for people who are different or who are pursuing different goals. It’s a friendly town. We’re also a very flexible community that’s open to opportunities.
It’s also a great place to raise children. It’s a very safe community and, again, it’s about everyone knowing everybody and being on the lookout for who isn’t coping. There are times when people must get very frustrated by others knowing what they’re doing, but by the same token I want people to know if my kids are struggling, that they can offer help and that their struggles won’t go unnoticed.
Jen: Is Coonabarabran’s indigenous culture a strong and part of the community’s fabric?
Aileen: Yes, it is. Our local Aboriginal people associate very closely with their roots and they’re celebrating that culture and passing it on, which is important for us all. They are very respectful people and we have a harmony here that doesn’t necessarily exist elsewhere.
NALAG's 'That's the Spirit' hardcover book features a selection of excerpts from the stories gathered from Western NSW during 2018-2020.
Coonabarabran War Memorial Clock Tower, Coonabarabran NSW.