That's the Spirit: Belinda Colless - Brewarrina NSW
“Not so long ago, young people saw it as almost a failure to come back to the bush rather than pursue a career in the city. Now they’re falling over themselves to get to regional areas. There’s no longer that cringe.” – Brewarrina’s Belinda Colless, who believes happiness is a choice and puts that mantra into practice in a number of community roles while running a business and living with the “new normal” of Multiple Sclerosis.
Belinda: I was born and raised on a property between Walgett and Collarenebri, the youngest of five kids.
Most of my adult life has been spent in the bush. I did go as a mature age student to uni in Brisbane but then I came back and was in Walgett for five years. I then took up a regionally based government job, but after a change in government I came out to Brewarrina for what I thought would be a six-month maternity-relief stint and I’m still here 13 years later.
Jen: Is that because you fell in love with Bre?
Belinda: I wouldn’t say I fell in love with the place, it was more of a convenience because it put me closer to my mother (at Walgett) but I really embraced the community and vice versa, and soon I was involved in all kinds of things. It was a very easy community to get involved with and then I met a fella, and that was it. I stayed.
Jen: What are some of the things you became involved with?
Belinda: The Culgoa Sports Club, the RSL Club board, the Brewarrina Field Days, the race club, the show society, the CWA…
Belinda Colless, Brewarrina NSW
Jen: (Laughs) So you just sat around twiddling your thumbs, then?
Belinda: That’s it! (Laughs). I think if you have some skills, they can be valuable in a community. Sometimes there are people who are the unsung heroes of communities that hold those sorts of organisations together, devoting 20 years or whatever to ensure that the organisation keeps going, and if you come into a community and you have some skills, it’s nice to be able to use them to give those stalwarts a bit of a respite. The injection of skills can give an organisation a shot in the arm. I guess I see myself as one of those people. I’m a sprinter more than a stayer.
Jen: Have you seen volunteer fatigue and charity burnout playing out across small communities?
Belinda: It’s a huge problem. I think it’s even more so in small remote communities like Bre. We don’t have entertainment created for us, we have to create our own entertainment. We don’t have cinemas or businesses you can go to and pay for the privilege of being entertained. Out here, if you want something you have to do it yourself. If you want to go to the races, you need to get a group of volunteers together to put on a race meeting.
That’s okay, and we’re all happy to do that, but that can lead to significant fatigue because it’s not unusual to look around and see the same volunteer faces on three or four different committees.
Remember that we’ve just been through, in some places, up to ten years of rip-roaring drought, so you have people who have been getting up at four or five o’clock in the morning to feed stock so they can be in town by 9am for the working bee at the showground to get ready for the races, then they need to go home and feed the ten poddy lambs. Then they do it all again the next weekend for another event.
You count that cost and it’s huge. Those volunteers, the depth of their ability to give to their community is unbelievable, but it takes a toll.
If you were to put a dollar value on the time they devote, it would be phenomenal, but they’re not doing it for financial reward, obviously.
Belinda Colless, Brewarrina NSW
Jen: You’re one of those who do an extraordinary amount for the community without asking for or seeking accolades or financial gain, so what does keep you motivated to continue to contribute?
Belinda: It’s about making your community a better place. This is going to sound really wanky, but if you give a little of yourself, that might prompt someone else to give a little of themselves and it isn’t until we all band together and give a little bit that things improve and be better.
I have this sign in my office that says “Happiness is a choice”, and it’s something I genuinely believe.
We get to choose what our community looks like. We can all sit on our hands and say, “This is wrong and that’s not good and I don’t like the other thing”. Well, if that’s the case, get off your hands and use them, because the only hands that are going to help you are the ones located at the end of your own arms. Get out there and change it yourself. Happiness IS a choice.
Jen: I think it was Ghandi who said, “Be the change you want to see in the world”.
Belinda: Exactly! I strongly believe that if you want a better community, it’s up to you. It might be as simple as picking up a piece of garbage and putting it in the bin, but how good would it be if everyone did the same every day?
Jen: You have that mantra – happiness is a choice – hanging on your office wall, but you also put that into practice every day because you’re living with Multiple Sclerosis (MS).
Belinda: I am. I’m very fortunate because I’m quite fit and well with my MS. I have a fantastic neurologist and a tremendous family and friends and support system around me.
It’s a journey that, at the start, was very frightening and confronting. It took me a good two years to get my head around it and work out that I had a choice – I could either sit and feel sorry for myself or I could get off my butt and live. Here’s another saying: Life isn’t a dress rehearsal. You only get one shot at it, so you might as well be out there doing your best whatever the circumstance.
I think that with anything in life, the mind is a really strong force. If you can get your mind in the right place then the other things will fall into place. I believe that a healthy mind will help support a much healthier body.
At the time of diagnosis with MS, it was devastating. I’d read all the bad news and I was like, “Oh my God, this is the end of life as I know it”, but then I realised it’s about the creation of a new normal.
As a result of MS, I suffer from poor balance, I get really fatigued and I forget things but I now have that as part of my new normal, and as soon as I was able to accept and embrace those things I was able to move forward with things.
It was when I was saying, “I can’t do this!” and continually focussing on the changes as a loss, that things were hardest. Once I embraced the changes and realised they were not a loss, just part of a new way I have to do things, it was so much better.
I think the older I get, I actually understand the challenges people face – particularly those who are in their 80s and 90s – when they can no longer do the things they used to. It’s the ones who embrace that change and accept their new normal, they’re the ones who are moving forward.
Jen: Taking that philosophy, can we extrapolate that to the way in which regional communities adapt, or not, to change? The ones who embrace change are the ones that move forward?
Belinda: I think you have to work with change, and particularly adversity, if you’re going to survive. You can choose not to work with it, to keep pushing back and working against it, but all you’re doing is putting your energy towards fighting a lost cause. Is change really a bad thing?
Take this whole COVID-19 thing: is it all bad? No, it’s not. For instance, here in my own business (a café) we have actually employed more staff because we’ve diversified to embrace the “new normal”. We’ve expanded our hours, and we’ve changed the menu to offer more takeaway options and we’re doing home deliveries. That’s a good thing. If you keep doing the same thing, you’ll keep getting the same results, so the pandemic has actually given us the opportunity to shake things up.So yes, I do think we need to accept challenges as opportunities. It’s very easy to get stuck in your own comfort zone and that can become too comfortable.
Belinda Colless overseeing the painting of a mural by renowned artist John Murray at her café in Brewarrina NSW.
Jen: Do you think small regional communities are good at that, or do we have a way to go yet?
Belinda: I think we have a huge way to go. In some ways, it’s not necessarily the culture of the community that’s the problem. Sometimes, the various levels of government exacerbate the existing divide between rural and city communities, and it becomes even harder to bridge that divide.
For instance, something as simple as our mobile network: if you have a mobile with one carrier, you can get great service here, but if you have a mobile with the other telco, the coverage is either non-existent or hit and miss.
So if a city person comes out here to Brewarrina with a mobile phone with that “other” carrier, that’s not really enhancing opportunities to welcome visitors with the things we have already, it’s putting up a barrier.
If we want to embrace change, we have to make it easier to do so.
City dwellers and decision makers have a responsibility to take regional communities along for the ride with them a bit more, and regional communities in turn need to take responsibility in accepting the opportunity to embrace change.
Jen: Do you think there’s been a craving on the part of city dwellers to connect with the book, and of young people to reconnect with their home communities?
Belinda: I do, and in some ways, COVID-19 has pushed that along by forcing us to rediscover things.
One of the best things that happened to my business was that people had to travel within their home state. I know that was very difficult for many people but the number of families we saw coming through our community during school holiday breaks was fantastic.
Not only did that provide financial support for the communities they visited, but it also forced those families to reconnect with themselves. The holiday became an adventure. It wasn’t about booking into a resort and going to a theme park or whatever – it was about camping out and wondering what you would find to do the next day.
During that time, so many people discovered the plethora of attractions that exist in regional NSW – people who have never been here before and wouldn’t have had it not been for the Covid-19 restrictions.
The pandemic has forced us to think about how we spend our leisure time as well as the way in which we work – it’s challenged us. That’s a good thing.
Jen: Could we better embrace the opportunity to demonstrate that we can be quite sophisticated in our tastes out here?
Belinda: Definitely we can. I have a coffee shop in Brewarrina, and people come in and say gingerly, “I don’t suppose you have almond milk?” And I go, “Yes – we do. We have almond milk, we have rice milk, we have lactose free, fat free, skim, full cream, we have decaf, we have spiced chai latte, vanilla…” and they look at you in wonder. They just don’t expect all those options out here.
Jen: They think the only choices for coffee is black or white.
Belinda: Yes! Exactly (laughs). Again, it’s about expectation and the divide that exists because of expectation or lack thereof. There are some people in the country who don’t like change, and that’s fine.
Jen: Do we need to get better at promoting ourselves?
Belinda: Oh, God, yes! Absolutely we do. Sometimes people don’t want to shine because they think it’s embarrassing, and they don’t want to be seen as boastful, but if you’ve done something great, why shouldn’t you be proud and why shouldn’t you be applauded and acknowledged? It’s the same with communities. Rural people generally aren’t very good at self-promotion.
Our farmers out here are some of the greatest and most innovative in the world, largely because of their resilience and ability to problem solve, but they don’t tend to blow their own trumpets, and that’s a shame.
We need to stop the tall poppy syndrome and shout out about how good regional NSW is.
Belinda Colless, Brewarrina NSW
Jen: So here’s your chance to do just that: Tell me why you love where you live.
Belinda: There are unlimited opportunities here if you’re prepared to look past the challenges.
You have to stare a problem straight in the eyes, but you also have to accept there is a problem in the first place if you’re going to overcome it. Your reaction to that problem is what makes or breaks it – whether that problem then becomes and opportunity or not.
Brewarrina is a hidden gem with huge potential. It just needs people to keep driving it, it needs leaders to keep giving of themselves.
My hope is that Bre will become an iconic destination for tourists who are visiting the area, because there’s so much to discover here including a huge and rich indigenous history.
We need city folk to get over the perception that Bre is the wild west.
At the same time, people here have to get away from the idea that “it’s only Bre”, and that we need to accept second best.
Why shouldn’t you be able to get an almond milk dirty chai latte in Bre if you want one?
It cuts both ways.
I’m very lucky because I have choice. I choose to live here. I don’t live here because I don’t know any different, and I think that’s an important point. I can remember leaving school and thinking that success meant moving to the big smoke and achieving all these wonderful things in the city. I did all those things – I worked for an international advertising agency in Brisbane – but I chose not to pursue it, because I realised that that wasn’t what success looked like for me.
The grass isn’t necessarily greener on the other side.
Young people in particularly need to look past the bright lights and not be blind-sided because there are a hell of a lot of opportunities to be had in small regional communities, and some of those opportunities haven’t even been identified yet.
Jen: Do you think the pendulum has swung back again to believing in a future for the bush?
Belinda: I think that’s absolutely true. Not so long ago, young people saw it as almost a failure to come back to the bush rather than pursue a career in the city. Now they’re falling over themselves to get to regional areas. There’s no longer that cringe. It’s much more acceptable to pursue opportunities in regional communities.
I talk to people who don’t necessarily come from western NSW who are sent out here to “do their penance” in a regional area either as police, or teachers, or health professionals, and they realise how great a place it is to live, raise children, save money and enjoy a lifestyle and have time to enjoy things.
They realise that you’re ripped off of a lot of things when you live in the city.
It’s becoming more and more okay to live, work and play in the bush. There’s a recognition that it’s okay to come from the bush, it’s okay to pursue a career in the bush, it’s okay to not just “buy from the bush” but to recognise and celebrate all the hidden gems there are here.
NALAG's 'That's the Spirit' hardcover book features a selection of excerpts from the stories gathered from Western NSW during 2018-2020.