To be chosen as a part of a team of just 6 to visit the far North Queensland destination, Palm Island, to volunteer for a week in an Indigenous setting was a truly humbling experience. Our goal was to provide physiotherapy services to those truly in need. To see the enormous health disparities up close and personal was a huge learning experience for myself and my fellow volunteers. After hearing multiple stories from other team members at Sport and Spinal Physiotherapy who had attended this same trip, I was very excited to be a part of the crew. A big thank you to our coach, Craig Honeybrook, for allowing me the leave and for funding my expenses.
The team at SOS Foundation set up the trip to Palm Island (affectionately known as ‘Palm’) from Sunday 15th November to Friday 20th November. The SOS Foundation performs a lot of trips to Palm Island and North East Arnhem Land (located in the Northern Territory) annually to provide physiotherapy services to Indigenous and Aboriginal people. The trip was a real eye opener for me, as I had never experienced remoteness like it.
Quite a few locals I chatted to had never been off Palm Island before! It comes back to perspective- many referred to Townsville as the big, bright, city lights. Whilst Townsville is a pleasant place, my perspective is that it is a large country town. Palm Island has a lot to offer. There are thousands of mango trees on the island with November being a very good time to tuck into some yellow heaven. As well as this, the sheer beauty of the place was in glorious view when we ventured up to the island’s highest point on a 3-hour trek to witness a panoramic outlook of the island.
After flying from Canberra to Brisbane and then onwards to Townsville, our team for the week met up and went out for dinner. Having been to Townsville once before in 2007, I was markedly impressed with the improvements the main streets had made. They have a fully functioning esplanade with multiple lagoons to escape the oppressive heat. The area is still riding a massive wave of support after the North Queensland Cowboys secured the National Rugby League title in October 2015. There were pop up stands selling Cowboys merchandise as well as a sea of people wearing jerseys and polos. The taxi driver I had from the airport to the centre of Townsville explained to me the night of the grand final was his busiest in 5 years!
Anyway, to the crew for the week: Lynda was the leader of the trip and works at the pro bono clinic that the SOS Foundation has established in Melbourne. She has been to Palm Island numerous times before and is a really inspiring person. Her willingness to help out others is infectious and it was indicative of the relationships that she has made on Palm that really cemented her place as a wonderful person indeed.
Sahanna was a physio who worked in Melbourne for Back in Motion. Sahanna explained to me that the founder of Back in Motion actually co-ordinated the formation of the SOS Foundation. Sahanna is a very fit sportsperson however the hike undid her on the Wednesday as she tore her medial ligament in her knee!
Another victim of that arduous hike to the summit of Palm was Rebekah who is from Adelaide and she won a place on the trip through her University. The couple of the group, Alison and Xavier, were from Sydney originally but they had spent the past 6 months performing locum work at Alice Springs Hospital (Alison is an Occupational Therapist and Xavier is a Physiotherapist with a lot of hospital experience around Sydney and Wollongong). Hearing their stories from Alice Springs about the challenges of Indigenous tribes had me intrigued as to what the week had in store.
We caught the ferry over from Townsville very early on Monday morning and we were eagerly excited to get to Palm to begin the week ahead. What struck me first with the island is the physical beauty of the place. With a good mixture of fringing reef, tropical beaches and green pastures, I was beginning to understand the local’s connection with the place. Furthermore, the people of Palm have such a fondness for the place that many have gone to the mainland to work previously but have missed Palm to the point where they pack up and head back to their cultural and spiritual home.
The first port of call was to the little physiotherapy clinic that the Foundation has set up. What I hadn’t expected was learning a lot about South Korean culture in the week that I was there. Jin, who hails from South Korea, runs the clinic. His wife and 2 kids (3 and 1) signed up for a 12-month contract on Palm Island. I sincerely take my hat off to Jin – what a commitment! I think it is a healthy thing for the locals to have some outside influences in order to grow and learn. Jin showed us around the workplace where he has a gym and a Pilates reformer at his disposal.
After seeing a few of Jin’s clients, we were off to the PCYC located in the middle of the township. The PCYC is a point of conjecture with the people of Palm as the government built it as a peace offering after the death of Cameron Doomadgee whilst in police custody. Whilst this obviously is still a raw issue here on the island, I feel it is a great outlet for the young people.
Many come to the community centre after school or work on a daily basis to participate in numerous sporting, educational and cultural activities in a safe and comfortable environment. Community members mostly staff the Centre and it has been the focal point of re-building positive relations between the police and the community. They have a boxing ring there were one of the regulars, Reggie Palm Island, has been training the house down in a bid to qualify for the Rio Olympics next year! He was off to Sydney in a few weeks time for a big fight night. His coach there informed me that his wrist had been playing up. After attending to that, we saw a training session where all the young kids surrounded the ring to cheer him on!
Tuesday was a busy day as we headed to the preschool to meet some of the happiest children you will ever see. A massive thunderstorm had them in awe, as it had not rained on Palm for months. The actual town is in a very drought-stricken time with water restrictions heavily enforced. The thunderstorm had the kids singing and dancing in the rain, much to the ire of the teachers! The preschool also encourages mums to come along and it is a lovely social gathering for budding young families.
Tuesday afternoon was spent playing soccer and tennis at the PCYC after some clinic work. The skill set on display was excellent. Some fleet of foot turning allowed for a quality game enjoyed by all. That evening I ran a pilates class for Jin, who took a well earned break. It is amazing how he utilizes what little space he is afforded to conduct his class. After finishing up here, we went over to the pub for dinner to watch a miraculous sunset. I suppose this is the enrichment of the land and the connection the people of Palm have for the physical environment. Everyone slept really well that night- the heat and humidity is a massive factor for the residents on Palm. I definitely could have gone for a siesta or two in the week we were there!
Wednesday was a 6am start for the crew as we were kindly taken on a 3-hour trek to the top of Palm with 2 local police officers. Getting their perspective on the issues surrounding Palm was an interesting layer to the numerous problems encompassing the island. Domestic violence and abuse of alcohol are at the forefront of the socio-economic problems surrounding the locals. Whilst there is not a great deal of work for locals, the younger generation can easily become disinterested and disengaged with life on Palm. Housing was another pertinent problem on the island- the Queensland state government had commissioned 400 homes to be built in 2008; to date only 80 have been erected. The slow nature of the housing construction has lead to many houses becoming overcrowded where children, parents and grandparents are sharing the same dwelling.
Lynda organised a lunchtime tour of the Island with the affectionately named ‘uncle’ Laurie. Uncle Laurie is seen as an uncle by everyone as he and his wife had been on Palm for decades. Their stories about the changing nature of the island was fascinating. He kindly drove us around to sample the beautiful beaches and nature surrounding the island.
That afternoon was spent at Ferdy’s Drug and Alcohol Rehabilitation centre. The facility is an important site for the people of Palm, as they previously had to leave the island to seek treatment. The staff members here were all very welcoming and hospitable. We had to perform a talk regarding back health to the staff and then see to their ailments. Many problems, from a musculoskeletal viewpoint, had been around for years and the compensatory strategies that they had subsequently adopted were in full view. That busy afternoon session was followed up by a trip to Uncle Laurie’s for dessert after dinner. Here we witnessed the stars in full view and had a bonfire on the beach. Another exhausting day was well spent unwinding on the beach at the end of the day.
A follow up session at Ferdy’s in the morning had us on our toes. We must’ve made an impression the previous day as we were busier than expected. The rest of the day was helping out at the aged care home called Sandy Boyd. Here we met some very remarkable people who shared with us their story. Many of the workers at Sandy Boyd allowed us to help out with their shift. One of the young guys had just come back from Townsville with his partner who had just given birth to their second child. She was incredibly cute! Credit to him though, as he was back at work the day he came back to Palm.
That afternoon was spent playing netball at the PCYC, running another pilates class and then off to the pub again for a quick dinner. It amazed me how quick the days actually went when we had many sites to visit. I know in the clinic in Gungahlin some days are longer than others!
Friday was primarily spent in the clinic reprieving Jin. Rugby league has a massive stronghold in this region, with Cowboys and Maroons jumpers everywhere.I treated a very interesting Fijian lady who has a son that used to play for the Melbourne Storm. Also, Javid Bowen, the nephew of Cowboy’s great Matt, is an ambassador to Palm and apparently visits the island when he gets time off from his playing roster with the Cowboys. The NRL premiership trophy tour was due on Palm Island the week after we left!
A real highlight to end the week was attending the Year 12 graduation. Excellent initiatives from the Queensland State Government and Townsville Local Government provided oppportunities for the graduands to take a variety of courses and further training throughout 2015. An excellent speech from the principal was re-iterated by his final summation:
“Always believe in yourself. Believe in the talents you have achieved and always nurture them. Don’t be concerned if your progress seems slow. Dream more, do more.”
Once the ceremony ended, everyone in attendance formed a tunnel to deliver a clap out to the year 12 participants. I don’t think there was a dry eye there – I was lucky I was wearing sunglasses!
Once we packed up, I was off on a little 9-seater plane out of Palm Island towards Townsville and onwards to Canberra. Even on the way home, I was next to a couple from Canberra who had just completed the Kokoda track! Hearing their story has inspired me to want to get over to Papua New Guinea and to gain a deeper understanding of their plight.
The week on Palm was a brilliant experience in which I learned many things both socially and culturally. I have decided to run the Canberra Times Marathon in April for the SOS Foundation and to be a part of their inaugural charity golf day at Huntingdale, Victoria, in May. I would like to thank the team at SOS Foundation, the other volunteers who I me during the week, as well as the beautiful people of Palm Island. I would especially like to thank Sport and Spinal Physiotherapy for allowing me the opportunity to experience this special week as well as funding my expenses.