Graham Buckley’s sea-change took him to a remote outstation in Central Australia to teach. But little did he know that it would be the start of an involvement with Indigenous communities which is still going strong.
In 1995, after briefly retiring from teaching, Graham Buckley left Victoria to take up a solo teaching position at a remote outstation in Central Australia. This ‘sea-change to the desert’ was the beginning of an involvement with Indigenous communities that continues today.
The catalyst for Graham’s return to the classroom was eldest daughter Jenny. As head teacher at Lilla, a small Indigenous school near Kings Canyon, she was also responsible for a Homeland Learning Centre at Ukaka outstation. Needing a teacher for the final term of 1995, she recruited her father.
“That one term turned into five years – it was heaven,” says Graham.
Initially, there was a steep learning curve. Graham’s experience in Victorian schools as one of 50 staff members was in total contrast to Ukaka, where he was the only teacher. Gaining the respect of the people was another challenge, though Graham jokes, “I think my number of years on the planet helped me greatly in this regard.”
Following his stint at Ukaka, Graham taught at Irrkerlantye Learning Centre in Alice Springs. The school, specifically for children from town camps, operated on an inter-generational structure where parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles also attended. “You were more likely to get the kids in as a family unit,” explains Graham. “We had three great-grandmothers there, doing their dot-painting.”
When he truly retired from teaching, at age 65, Graham maintained his connection with Irrkelantye as the bus driver. “Getting town camp kids to school had a real knack to it,” he laughs, before adding, “These kids learn to self-survive at an early age. They are poorly housed, poorly fed and clothed, and excessive drinking is often rife among adults.” Then, in 2003, he heard about the twentieth anniversary of the Great Victorian Bike Ride (GVBR) and approached the school community about taking a group of children along.
It was not a new concept for him – he’d participated in the inaugural GVBR in 1984 with a group of troubled teenagers from Melbourne – but there were additional challenges here, including finding funding. Fortunately, he managed to raise enough money to take six children on the 2003 ride. The following year he approached Yirara College, a boarding school for Indigenous children from remote communities across Australia, and took 12 children. Since then, he has managed to take four boys each year.
“A main focus of mine is to give these kids a look at life outside Alice and encourage them to hang in at school,” he explains. “The GVBR is a terrific vehicle for opening up their world, particularly as their deprived background gives them practically no chance of it happening through any other avenue.”
Graham enjoys seeing the children achieve their goals, whether it’s on the ride or in later years. Young Rowan McNamara, who went on the ride in 2007, recently starred in the award-winning film Samson and Delilah. Set in a town camp similar to where Rowan lives, the film vividly depicts some of the issues facing the children in this situation. “I see the boys all the time around Alice,” says Graham. “Now and then I take surplus fruit, unwanted clothing or small furniture items to the camps.
“Although I don’t get a lot of verbal feedback, I know what I do is greatly appreciated and the kids really do enjoy the experience of the bike ride,” he continues. “It’s usually a couple of days before they start to relax amongst all the ‘whitefellas’, but friends are soon made.”
In 2004, two of the boys performed in front of a huge crowd on the cyclists’ entertainment night, surprising Graham and winning equal first prize. In 2007, Rowan researched the rail trail so the boys could take a different route. “The independence and learning element shown that day filled me with pride,” Graham says.
While he wants to continue his project as long as possible, fundraising remains a huge challenge. Over the years Graham has sold dot-painted bike helmets, coordinated ‘lawn sales’ and ‘barefoot bowls’, and approached politicians (with limited success). Much of the money comes from fellow cycling enthusiasts. “It’s a matter of flying by the seat of your pants,” he says. “Twice I’ve put costs on my credit card, sure I would eventually get it back. This year, he hopes to take children from the Mt Theo Program at Yuendumu Community (300 km north-west of Alice Springs), which was set up to combat the scourge of substance abuse, particularly petrol sniffing. “Young people are taken into the program to be engaged in education, plus elders reinforce cultural themes,” he explains. “It’s designed to get them away from influences that have messed up their lives.”
Graham says he doesn’t have a missionary zeal, rather a zest for giving kids with ordinary lives a chance to look at their future in a different light. “And,” he laughs, “it also keeps me away from other old farts for a period of time.”