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"I have always depended on the kindness of strangers"

I have always loved the line at the end of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire, as the befuddled and abused Blanche accepts the hand of a doctor who will eventually lock her away in a horrible 1950s mental hospital, her sister, abusive brother-in-law and her (until recently), fiancé stand by and let her go to her fate.

Deliciously ironic, I thought. Can anyone really depend on the kindness of strangers? Joining Jess on this campaign, I was soon to find out the truth!

Those who know me know that I have always been a dyed-in-the-wool activist for justice, but a little jaded after so many years: can modern governments ever be moved by our calls for change?

So when I sat down with Jess at a pub to discuss her campaign and how I could help, I was a little doubtful. Yes, I believe something must be done about our government’s horrific asylum seeker policies; children must not be held in dubious offshore processing or closed detention centres. Yes – our government’s continual snubbing of international laws make us all complicit in their actions, at least in the eyes of the world.

It was just that Jess’s idea that Australians are a generous and welcoming people that had this cynic, doubting! Could we really make a difference? Could one petition affect government policy? Might we not have egg on our faces as we passed unnoticed through the backroads of a country left weary and apathetic by so many causes vying for our attention?

Even so, in my heart of hearts, I wanted to believe and Jess’s enthusiasm inspired me to trust that we could make a difference. And that, my friends, was the first step I took into the light and into the love and support of strangers, unified by the desire to come together to help those in need.

I considered writing here about the somewhat slow response we received within our own community but then, no, I decided, it’s about positivity! Today I want to sing the praises of those who have given what they can spare, and more, even in this hectic, stressful age. Especially Bernadette McPhee for her tireless effort to spread the word far and wide on social media. These magnificent individuals will all remain permanently on my Christmas card list (if I actually sent them!).

Needless to say, I was nervous when Jess set out. What would we find out there in regional Australia? Could we really trust in the kindness of strangers or would we, like Blanche, discover it really doesn’t exist?

We already had some accommodation set up and a smattering of support crews in place. Jess’s school and its connection to the Brigidine Nuns, and therefore the Catholic Church, gave us our first hints of the generosity to come. Then came those like Cynthia Lim and her friends who heard Jess on the radio and offered their house and hospitality to her. They also drove great distances to transport the support caravan “up the road”. They didn’t have to; they just wanted to.

Then we hit Euroa. We’ve already written here of the magnificent response from Carol Crowe and this beautiful town. It was there that I suddenly realised the magnitude of what we were doing! As word passed up the road, people gave us our slogan for this leg of the journey: “Do it Like Euroa!”

We were helping to energise like-minded people in these communities to exchange their feelings of helplessness for a desire to take part, to work together to enact change for the better. And in doing so we were learning so much about the love, the kindness and the generosity of strangers, of fellow Australians.

There are many wonderful (former) strangers who I now consider friends. Jacquie Coupe, who walked with Jess to Wangarratta and helped organise with Jess’s host family, the Twitts, an amazing reception in “The Wang”. Penny Vine and Ram Khanal from the Bhutanese community who have done such great things in Albury; Marg Sellstrom from Mansfield RAC; Dinny Adems the mayor of Shepparton and Sam from the Ethnic Council who rang me to organize a Shepparton visit for Jess; John Goonan and Douglas Williams who, reached out to their individual church communities – which then responded in the best of all possible ways.

To mention all those who have given so much to make this campaign a success would take me many, many pages. Yet I don’t need to. I know they, like Jess herself, are doing this not for acknowledgement, not for praise, but because of a real need to make our country a place we can be proud of!

I’ve said it so many times: I am overwhelmed, and I continue to be, by the incredible positive response from regional Victoria and NSW. We ARE making a difference, all of us! One petition may not mean a whole lot on its own but this journey, the people we inspire and who inspire us as we record their stories along the way, make a difference. Together, we can change policy - we can change the world! We are people who demand to be heard and come hell or high water, Jess will carry all that with her to the steps of Canberra!

Change IS coming. I believe it now!

And I wouldn’t be any kind of campaigner or project manager if I didn’t put this out there: will YOU be part of this action? Is your name down there on this petition as one of the Australians who want change, who want our government to reflect a desire for compassion and generosity to those in desperate need of welcome? It’s still not too late - download the petition and get signing: our brothers and sisters in regional Australia have shown you how!

- Peita Collard

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