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Renee Rockliff reflects on Wiluna Trip

WAIS Hockey Athlete Renee Rockliff joined Foundation mentors as they headed to Wiluna to visit our Remote Schools Attendance Strategy program, here is what she had to say about her experience.

“In December 2020 I was privileged to attend a regional experience to a remote indigenous community, Wiluna, with the Wirrpanda Foundation.

Our Trip:
The Wirrpanda Foundation, myself and other guests were welcomed into the community with open arms. We spent four days visiting the school, teaching sports including football, netball, and basketball. It was truly a once in a lifetime opportunity to see the kids beaming smiles and pure excitement to learn new skills, be active and genuinely excited to be at school.

We would spend one period with each class everyday getting to know the kids and playing sports. It was challenging at first as many of the kids carried a lot of shame, but as we shared our story and why we were there, the kids began to open up and be more comfortable around us. By the end of day one, all the kids were laughing, having fun and everyone was getting involved.

After a year of COVID-19 affected attendance it was heart warming to see the kids returning to school and enjoying the day. The younger kids would hang off you like flies and wanted all the piggy backs in the world. It made me smile. The older kids were incredible to talk to and among them were some remarkable kids with big hearts and even bigger goals.

Growing up in Perth I was privileged to attend private school, enjoy after school sports and other leisure activities. Until this trip I had not stopped to consider that there are places within Western Australian, where kids do not get the same opportunities as we do living in the city. In the community they often do not attend school because of family, transport issues and it generally being not engaging to them.

There is also limited social events and the only recreational activity on offer is the pool, and even that is only open at certain times. This lack of community means there is greater opportunity for anti-social behaviour. The foundation works hard create an opportunity to see kids enjoy school to drive up attendance. During the week away we also arranged evening community games of football and basketball. Meaning entire families could get involved and to me it was touching to see families together, having some fun with their kids and getting active as well.

WAIS gave us clothing, including past team uniform athletes had donated, to hand out to the kids and after our evening football game all the families gathered round, we presented awards to the standouts and they all got around each other. When we handed out the clothing, initially the kids did not understand that they were for them, but once they understood, their eyes lit up! I have never seen kids to excited to receive a shirt ever! In that moment, it really sunk in that I am extremely fortunate, and I take a lot of what I have for granted.

On the final day we were given the opportunity to go out bush with one of the families from the community. This was definitely a once in a lifetime opportunity! We sat in a clay pit in 40 degree heat, the family made a fire and cooked kangaroo tail – they tried to catch a gecko but they couldn’t find one! We sat and ate while they shared stories of their past and of the Dream Time, answering questions on their lives and culture. I felt immersed in their world and amazed by their ongoing reliance, ability to make the most of what they have and their pure sense of family and community.

This trip taught me so much, not only about the community and their culture but also about myself. These beautiful kids have taught me lessons that living in Perth have not – to appreciate the small things in life, from a simple plastic water bottle to a T-shirt. The pure enjoyment of a clean shirt gave them so much joy and I want to take their sense of gratitude and implement it in my life. My heart is full of love and compassion for these kids and their community. Overall, I am forever grateful for this trip, it was an eye-opening experience that I will take with me forever.”

Who are the Wirrpanda Foundation:
The Foundation was established in 2005 by former West Coast Eagles player David Wirrpanda. Their mission is to lead the provision of education, employment, and business opportunities for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, by working together to empower and build capacity amongst individuals, their families and their communities. They have set up many programs across remote communities, which promote self-efficacy, healthy living, and engagement with community. Currently they have reached and helped over 35,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people nationally.

A bit about Wiluna:
Wiluna is 11 hours from Perth, located on the edge of the Little Sandy Desert. It has a rich history, being an epicentre for gold mining in Western Australia. However, there is much more traditional history that I was not aware of until I visited this community. Wiluna is home to the Martu people, and they honour the Last of the Nomads. These are Warri (1909-1979) and Yatungka (1917-1979) and they were believed to be the last of the Mandildjara tribe and were perhaps Australia’s last desert nomads leading the traditional Indigenous lifestyle. Their story is a story of star-crossed lovers, where they ran from their community to be with one another, living in fear of facing punishment if they were to return. They lived off the land and with each other and their three children, only of which two survived the harsh lifestyle of the desert. In 1977 they were found close to starvation during a severe drought, bought back to their community in Wiluna until 1979 when they passed. Their death is historical as it marked the death of an indigenous lifestyle that stretched back more than 40,000 years.

This story was originally published by WAIS

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