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It takes a village

It takes a village
Illustration by Hattie Hickson
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An idea hatched around a kitchen table 30 years ago has changed lives and communities. In a new series on the work of stellar community organisations, Galah charts the impact of the Country Education Foundation.

BEFORE the Country Education Foundation was a registered charity with 45 local agencies, before it had helped more than 7000 regional young people continue their education, it was a group of people kicking ideas around a kitchen table in Boorowa, on the south western slopes of New South Wales. 

It was 1993. The region was in drought and jobs were hard to find, especially for young people. The kitchen-table gathering was called by a couple of residents, Julia and Nick Burton Taylor, who placed an ad in the local paper asking for community input to answer a question: how can we help country kids succeed?

The problems were obvious, says Julia Burton Taylor. “Young country people were just not getting the opportunities. In Boorowa we were lucky to get one a year, if that, going to university. And the number finishing Year 12 wasn’t good, either. Some of the kids were third generation on benefits—they’d never seen anyone walk out the door and go to work.”

The reasons for the education deficit were (and still are) complicated and compounding, among them the cost of tuition, equipment and living away from home; the lack of practical and emotional support; and the difficulty navigating educational systems. The very idea of further education often seemed impossible to country kids short on confidence, guidance and role models.

The first step was to form the Boorowa Education Foundation. Lamington drives and donations raised $5000 and supported five students in the first year. During the next few years, chapters were established in nearby towns of Yass, Cowra and Harden. This grassroots movement continued to spread until 2003 when, buoyed by success and the belief that education is for everyone, the Country Education Foundation of Australia (CEF) was incorporated as the umbrella organisation. 

School leavers can apply to their local CEF for support each year. Recipients are awarded between $500 and $5000 for a broad range of purposes, from rent to textbooks, computers to trade tools for apprentices. As well as financial help, the organisation offers “community-based encouragement” tailored for individual students. This might be mentoring, information, or a sounding board in tough times. 

The CEF operates on two levels, the national and the local, both independent of government funding. At the national level, funding comes from private and corporate donors and philanthropic organisations. Many universities have close relationships with the CEF, which delivers targeted support for CEF students, including help with finances, accommodation and employment while studying at university. 

On the local front, foundations raise funds through their community members and organisations. “Volunteers and local communities are the heart and soul of CEF,” says Burton Taylor, who is secretary of the CEF board. “Their dedication helps young adults reach otherwise impossible goals.”

Katie Jayne O’Brien was one of the Braidwood Foundation’s recipients in 2009–2010, when she was studying education at Canberra’s Australian Catholic University. She’s now a primary school teacher at Jerilderie, in the New South Wales southern Riverina, after eight years teaching in remote communities in the Northern Territory.

O’Brien says the CEF has had a profound effect on her life. Just as important as the financial support she received were the check-in phone calls from foundation members, and the interest and empathy from those following her journey back home. “It felt like I was being backed; that the community was behind me,” she says.

She has returned that support through donations, speaking at events, and being involved in mentoring programs. She says the CEF feels like a family to her, and she’s not alone. Two-thirds of those who receive funds are keen to continue their involvement. 

The Country Education Foundation has never been about helping the brightest, or the resourceful kids who could do it by themselves. Its mission, says Burton Taylor, is to help those who lack the pathways to fulfil their potential. 

Isabella Smith is in her second year of a Bachelor of Psychology at Bathurst’s Charles Sturt University, something that might not have been possible without support from the Griffith chapter of the foundation. 

Raised in the Riverina town, she’s the first in her family to attend university. She gets emotional talking about the CEF’s help: how it eased financial pressure and gave her a network of friends; the phone calls and visits that helped her along the way. “Sometimes I talk to the Griffith Foundation more than I talk to my own mum,” she says. “They’re amazing for support and knowing what’s going on and offering what they can.” The funds contributed by the CEF eased Smith’s transition to university and helped reduce stress for her and her family. She also received the Stirling Pastoral–CEF Education Alliance Scholarship worth $24,000 over her three-year degree, after being nominated by her local foundation.

Smith’s choice of study was driven by a spike in local suicides when she was 15. “I witnessed first hand the impacts of suicide and the lack of mental health services in the area and surroundings,” she says, “and it drove my passion to want to help people and provide that support.”

Both Smith and O’Brien are passionate about giving back to rural communities, and plan to live and work regionally.

Thirty years after that first kitchen-table brainstorming session, there are local chapters across New South Wales, the Northern Territory, Queensland, South Australia and Victoria, and a head office in Orange. In 2022, $2 million was awarded in 653 individual grants. More than $15 million has been distributed in 7366 grants since 1993. 

Independent research shows a return of almost $5 in social value for every dollar invested. And thousands of recipients stay involved and give back, thus increasing the foundation’s reach and impact.

“We would just like to see the opportunities be there for rural and regional students,” says Burton Taylor. “Education and training doesn’t just change lives, but entire families and communities.”

Country Education Foundation