Sarah Donnelley was born and bred in Sydney but when she decided to move to the outback town of Wilcannia, in far-west NSW, for a job posting as a teacher, it was the start of the pages of her first book.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this article contains a reference to a person who has died.
As a non-Indigenous educator, she wanted to understand more about learning in Aboriginal communities and was “lucky” enough to find work at Wilcannia Central School, nearly 200km away from Broken Hill.
“I was really intrigued about how it could be as a teacher living and working in a place where you could actually connect with more students and more opportunity to connect on country,” she said.
“To get outside and see what connecting with community and elders could mean for their learning, and enrich their schooling experience.
“I had to go with my gut, and it led me out here and I didn’t look back.”
‘Big things grow’
This gave Ms Donnelley diverse teaching moments, including working through Wilcannia’s COVID-19 outbreak, and winning the 2020 ARIA Music Teacher Award with a moving rendition of From Little Things Big Things Grow.
She said she always wanted to stay connected with her students and provide new experiences, particularly during the pandemic, where the town’s patchy internet meant they couldn’t even fall back on online teaching.
“We had to think outside of the box, even though we didn’t have the internet connections, we wanted students to feel connected through music and our local radio station,” Ms Donnelley said.
“It’s certainly been a crazy sort of ride in the short time I’ve been here.”
Ms Donnelley this week released a memoir called Big Things Grow about teaching in Wilcannia, which addresses some of the misconceptions surrounding the often overlooked part of Australia and what she has learned while working in the Aboriginal community.
She hopes the book will show people the positive side of working in the bush and encourage more teachers to take up remote postings.
All proceeds from the book will go to a charity she started with her students.
A ‘second mum’
Barkindji woman Monica Kerwin’s daughter is taught by Ms Donnelley, and is now finishing grade 12.
She is thankful for her work as a teacher in motivating her daughter to do further study.
“She’s just been accepted into a university in Sydney and I believe Sarah has played a big part in that, she’s always been on the front line,” Ms Kerwin said.
“She’d go out of her way to make sure my daughter got to where she wants to go in life.”
While Ms Kerwin did not always see “eye-to-eye” with Ms Donnelley, she is now one of the “only women” she trusts with her children.
She said when her eldest son took his own life, Ms Donnelley was there for support.
“It was just last November, a day before my birthday … we had to deal with sorry business and she was amazing with my daughter and supported us as a family,” Ms Kerwin said.
“I’m now seeing a counsellor and it’s relieving the pain and anger that goes along with grieving.”
Ms Kerwin sees Ms Donnelley as a “second mum” from these experiences.
She feels proud to see better representation of her community.
“Wilcannia has always been in the spotlight for something, but when anything good comes out of Wilcannia, it hardly gets recognized,” Ms Kerwin said.
“I think it’s amazing to see this book, it’s wonderful.”
Ms Kerwin said having strong education support was important for young Indigenous people.
“We have to survive … and having a lot of knowledge is powerful,” she said.
Becoming ‘part of the family’
Benita Tatt grew up in Wilcannia and works with Ms Donnelley at the school.
They began with a work relationship, and saw each other as “quite opposite”, coming from different worlds.
But over time she became a “part of the family”.
“Living in Wilcannia, you see a lot of teachers who come and go and expect them to not be here for very long, they get their transfers and they’re out of here,” Ms Tatt said.
As a single mother with three kids who works full-time, Ms Donnelley has been part of supporting her.
“My kids love Sarah, she’s invited to the kids birthdays, or barbecues …you could ring her at two o’clock in the morning and she’d get out of bed and help you with whatever,” Ms Tatt said.
The two friends have now been neighbors for eight months and support each other from meeting at their home fences.
“Some days I have bad days where I’m trying to finish assignments, and she would message me ‘come to the fence’ and you’ll go out and she’ll give a little pep talk,” Ms Tatt said.
“Because there’s a fence between us, she jokes about taking a panel out between the fence, so the kids don’t have to jump the fence to see Ms Sarah.”
Creating more opportunities
Ms Donnelley is putting her book proceedings to an organization she and her students have founded, called the Wilcannia Youth Foundation.
They will be part of different community-led initiatives supporting the work of young leaders.
“It can support for things like traveling for sports, music opportunities and different people to come in to work,” Ms Donnelley said.
The stories of the outback community continues, and Ms Donnelley is thankful for what she has taken in so far.
“I’m very privileged that I’ve had an opportunity to share my adventures out here, my learning here, out in Wilcannia because it has been such a rich experience.”