A RAMPAGING snake at Cunnamulla Police Station and a hostile camel at Toompine Hotel near Quilpie were among memories that St Vincent de Paul Society state president John Campbell carried back to Brisbane from his recent 3500km fact-finding mission to parts of the Darling Downs and further west in Queensland.
But the results have already made the effort worthwhile, according to John.
“Last week I had a phone call from the mayor of Cunnamulla who offered a low-rental shop space in a recently refurbished business complex,” he told The Catholic Leader.
And a Toowoomba St Vincent de Paul Society youth worker is about to retrace John’s footsteps and talk to schools about setting up Mini Vinnies conferences in areas such as Miles, Chinchilla, Charleville, Roma, Warwick and Dalby.
Driving John’s trip, which ran for three weeks from September 29 to October 8, was his growing concern at falling membership at a time when the needs for the society’s services are obviously greater than ever.
He was also out to see first hand how tough things were for a group of people who are renowned for bearing their burdens in silence.
With him were the society’s central council president Ron Klease and Toowoomba central council manager Kathie Brosnan.
As well as fond memories of the country people’s “outstanding hospitality”, John brought back a much keener sense of the needs of the communities he visited.
“These needs included everything from the impact of the mining boom on affordable rental housing to the need for supportive housing for people living with a mental illness,” he said.
The trip took in 14 towns and included 23 separate meetings with community leaders including mayors and the local police.
The snake encounter took place on one of John’s meetings with the latter group.
“We’d just dropped in to see Cunnamulla’s sergeant of police to tell him what we’d be doing while in town,” he said.
“He said we might as well have a look through the police station which had just been done up.
“We’d no sooner walked in than we heard yelling from a shed outside.
“We looked out in time to see one of the office women rushing out with a big brown snake in hot pursuit.
“The lot of us ran and chased it and it shot off next door not to be seen again.”
Yet another animal adventure was waiting just around the “corner” – this time involving a camel in a tourist attraction at Toompine Hotel near Quilpie.
John said that, being a bit of a horseman, he thought he might have a “yarn” with the camel.
“It was a young camel and it was quickly obvious it didn’t want anything to do with me,” he said.
“Every time I came close, it would just kick out and try to bite me. It definitely wasn’t in the mood for a yarn.”
Mixed amongst such light-hearted moments were more serious concerns.
“The further the trip went, the more we gained the overwhelming impression that the needs in the country were just as great or, in some cases, greater than the city,” John said.
“For example, mental illness in the bush becomes a huge issue as there are virtually no services to deal with it.
“People with such an illness usually have to travel by road with police or ambulance to Toowoomba for treatment as airlines usually won’t transport them.
“Such a trip can take ages from some of these centres … I remember on one trip to Kingaroy years ago a doctor telling me that such emergencies can tie up the community’s valuable resources for long periods of time.
“St Vincent de Paul is looking at opening houses in the more remote centres where people suffering acute episodes of mental illness could be treated in their own community.”
John said the society was also looking to build low-cost rental properties in towns like Roma to help those left behind in the resources boom.
“It’s clear that low-cost housing is vital – there are more people in crisis than ever before,” he said.
“Many less fortunate people in these communities are being forced out of existing accommodation as rents rise.
“Women with children are particularly affected.
“The situation has been caused by the booming mineral and gas developments in regions such as the Surat Basin which has pushed property prices and rents up.
“During our visit, Roma Shire Council expressed an interest in making land available for such a project and the society is hoping to have further discussions about this possibility.”
John said the boom, and the accompanying lure of high wages, had also impacted on the availability of skilled workers to build new St Vincent de Paul premises in many towns.
He described his presentation to 82-year-old Daphne Hintz, of Millmerran, with a certificate and badge of edification for 35 years’ service to the society as “one of the journey highlights”.
He said the presentation of the award had reminded him of “the lifelong dedication” of many of the society’s members.
“However, it also reminded me of the pressing need the society has to boost the numbers of its members and volunteers,” he added.
Several strategies are being looked at to deal with this decline in numbers.
Linking primary school students to Mini Vinnies is one such strategy.
The society’s Toowoomba youth worker Brett Johnson is planning to visit some of the schools along John’s recent trail before the end of term to talk to students about becoming members.
John said another strategy was to promote the society as a provider of social justice rather than charity.
“This is a particularly effective way of getting young people involved,” he said.
“It appeals to the often strong spirit of idealism amongst this particular group.”
John said one of the most successful ways of increasing membership had been a program he had put in place at the St Francis of Assisi conference at West End in Brisbane.
It was started just after he became state president in 2000 and involved a business plan with goals and timelines.
“Within four years the number of members had risen from four to 54,” he said.
Along with looking at ways to increase the society’s membership, John has another project to tackle before 2008 ends.
It will be a fact-finding mission similar to his country tour, this time through the whole of the Brisbane City Council area.
He’ll be visiting all 67 conferences, listening, observing and occasionally advising.
All the while he’ll be keeping in mind the reasons why the St Vincent de Paul Society exists; in particular he’ll be thinking of society’s less fortunate who are depending on its works.