Palm Island Australia - A Journey With The Cathy Freeman Foundation
By Victoria Ugarte

It was November in 2008 when I found myself incredibly moved by a video I had just watched on the Catherine Freeman Foundation (CFF), which was presented at the “Learn, Lead and Succeed” lunch at Westpac by Anne Sherry. In awe of Cathy Freeman, a truly inspirational Australian, and the difference she was making to the Indigenous community of Palm Island, I asked myself  “How can I help?”

Like many people, I found it all too easy in the past to get inspired by a cause, feeling good at the time, then going home and forgetting about it all, secure in the fact that someone else was doing something about it. This time, I was determined to follow my own advice, get out of my comfort zone and take action. As soon as I got back to my studio, whilst the emotions were still fresh from the presentation, I Googled the Catherine Freeman Foundation.

Although I didn’t have any spare money to donate, I had tons of women’s clothing; I had just closed down a fashion agency and I had stock to spare. Emailing the CFF office in Melbourne, I received a response the following day. Yes, they were delighted with the offer, and they had even thought of putting together a fashion parade for the women with the donated clothes.What a great idea! And I wanted to be there for the event! Of course the prospect of meeting Cathy Freeman for me was the icing on the cake.

“Palm Island, are you crazy!!” Peter cried when I told him about my upcoming trip. Sounding more like a holiday resort, Palm Island is in fact one of Australia’s largest indigenous communities only a short flight from Townsville. Although often termed a classic “tropical paradise” given its natural endowments, its history has been a troubled one since the European settlement in Australia. Since its creation as an Aboriginal reserve, Palm Island has been synonymously portrayed by the media as disadvantaged and violent. So I understood Peter’s concern. Nevertheless, I felt in my gut that an extraordinary opportunity existed for me to bring about some positive change, and so I was adamant about traveling to Palm Island. Little did I know the incredible experience that awaited me.

One week after I had dispatched 13 boxes of women’s clothing to Palm Island, my journey began. I took a flight from Sydney to Townsville, had an overnighter at Townsville, and then hopped on a short Skytrans flight to Palm Island early the following morning.

Arriving In Palm Island.

Nothing prepared me for the beauty of this little piece of Australia. Situated just 65 kilometres northwest of Townsville, on the East Coast of Queensland, Palm Island is the main island of the Greater Palm group. It consists of small bays, stunning sandy beaches, and steep forested mountains rising to heights of 548 metres. This was indeed a tropical paradise.

Arriving at the Palm Island airport, my lift was not in sight. The aircraft was only a small one, so it took no time to disembark and for the airport to empty, save for 2 airport staff. I was alone, and as luck would have it, my cell phone did not have network service on the island. There were no facilities such as taxis and public transport to take me anywhere, and it wasn’t exactly the place that a girl could go wandering around by herself. I prayed that I had not been forgotten.

After 20 minutes of panic, a 4-Wheel drive drove right up to the airport waiting room entrance and came to a screeching halt. “Are you the fashion designer?!” a delightful, fit-looking young man yelled out at me from the vehicle. My official lift, Robert Blackley, turned out to be the President of the Bgcolman Future and the Coordinator of the Palm Island Men’s Business Group. With great relief, I jumped into Robert’s 4-wheel drive for the short ride into town. On arrival into town, the inadequate housing and lack of infrastructure for the Indigenous population of Palm became apparent.
Robert kindly deposited me to the home where I would be staying, which was the manager’s residence for the Palm Island Motel. “Go straight in, the others are in there.” he said.

“The others” consisted of Andrew Cannon (CFF Board), Richard Thomas (CFF Accountant), Fiona Cummins (new CFF GM), and Lisa and Emily Steven, and Emily Hamilton, all from St. Catherine’s in Melbourne. I also met the wonderful Svea Pitman, who was also heavily involved with the CFF and Palm Island. And tucked away at the end of the couch was Australian icon and Olympic Champion, Cathy Freeman, a warm, charming and effervescent young woman who glowed with vitality
and good humour. She was touched by my clothing donation and was herself looking forward to the fashion parade.

A Day Filled With Activity

At noon the following day, we all walked over to the local community centre to attend a lunch organized by the members of the Palm Island Sport and Recreation Association, with Mayor Alfred Lacey in attendance. Doug Pitt, the Sport and Recreation Coordinator, filled us in on how fantastic it has been for the community to have the Senior Men’s and Women’s Rugby league competitions reintroduced for the first time in a decade. The lunch spread was simple and plentiful, and it gave me the chance to discover that the people of Palm Island had a warmth and generosity of spirit that I had not found elsewhere in more established and privileged parts of Australia. I felt welcomed and at home.

At 1:30, we headed to the Council Chambers where Cathy Freeman was going to present 12 new bicycles and runners donated by the CFF to Palm Island school children who showed regular attendance of school, and displayed a consistent effort and dedication to their studies. The proceedings included the school children singing the “Palm Island Song”, followed by a traditional dance performed by the local boys with body decoration, taking the form of stamping motions which told stories from “Dreamtime”. Set against a backdrop of sky, sea and mountain, with the beautiful local children huddled obediently together and proud parents looking on, I found myself unable to hold back the tears.

Cathy Freedom, Symbol Of Hope

To the citizens of Palm Island, Cathy Freeman represents far more than a local girl “done good”. They see her as a source of inspiration and hope. They recognize themselves in her and feel secure in the fact that her support for them is consistent and unwavering. It is clear to them that she has never forgotten her roots. And throughout the presentations and activities that were planned for them, it was Cathy that they came to see.

Secret Women’s Business Begins

After a short rest and shower to get some relief from the afternoon heat, it was back to the local school auditorium to assist Svea in organizing the clothes, models and seating for the fashion parade. We arranged the women’s clothing in neat piles along 6 trestle tables to be given away to the women. This was to be a “women’s only” function.

Finally, from 5 PM onwards approximately 60 women, consisting of elders, mothers, daughters and friends began to dribble into the auditorium. When confronted with tables groaning with new clothes, the women were initially shy to approach and touch the clothes. Some asked if the clothes were for sale, and others asked if I was taking it all back with me to Sydney after the parade. When I explained to them that the clothes were all for them, and that they could choose and keep whatever they wanted, the delight on their faces was indescribable! The universal language of women being drawn to beauty took its course, and in no time, the women from Palm preened, pranced and tried things on, whilst I busied myself with the other organizers, who were assisting the women with sizing.

By 6 PM, the “secret women’s business” had begun. With Cathy Freeman and the elders taking front row seats, the doors were closed. After Cathy started the event with a speech on the importance of feeling beautiful from the inside, the fashion parade got into full swing.

It wasn’t long before everyone got into the spirit. They clapped and hooted as their friends, mothers and daughters paraded up and down the catwalk. To say that the Aboriginal woman has a natural grace and beauty is an understatement.

The finale of the fashion parade was by far the highlight of the evening. Svea had organized one of the elders to come out at the end and model an outfit on the catwalk. Deaf and mute, this woman in her 70’s had long grey hair that cascaded down to her shoulders and her lovely lined face showed the wisdom of her years. She was the Archetypal Earth Mother, and she was beautiful. This elderly woman pranced and sashayed in her new clothes with a natural rhythm and ease that put women half her age to shame. She brought the house down!

Back in my room at the Manager’s cottage, I reflected on the day’s events, which was filled with insights, revelations and strong emotion. And although exhausted, I found it hard to settle. I may have donated some clothing to the women of Palm Island, but what I received from them in return was so much more. They gave us everything they had, including their hearts. I felt myself so privileged to experience the incredible warmth and spirit of an Aboriginal community, and gain an insight into the richness of its cultural heritage. For one moment, I felt the heartbeat of the Rainbow serpent, and I was certain that she was a woman!

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