Founder of Drought Angels wins Australian of the Year Award
DURING one of the worst droughts in Australian history, Drought Angels co-founder and director Natasha Johnston has been a beacon of hope, providing support for farmers experiencing their darkest and driest times.
Since starting Drought Angels in 2014, the grassroots Chinchilla-based organisation has assisted 4500 farmers across 1166 towns in Australia, and now Mrs Johnston, 48, is getting the recognition she deserves winning Queensland's Australian of The Year award, in the Local Hero category.
Despite the fact the Mrs Johnston has helped farmers live through their hardest times, she never imagined the heights the organisation would grow to, and was shocked to hear she had made the top four nominations in Queensland - let alone being nominated for the award in the first place.
"You always see this and hear this, but I guess you never picture yourself being one of those people nominated or up for an award, because I do what I do because I love it, and I'm passionate about our farmers," she said.
"I've always loved helping people, and I hate seeing someone in a circumstance that they can't see a way forward."
While farmers across the country have battled extreme adverse conditions with drought, fire, and floods, Drought Angels have provided individualised, and moral support to to those living on the land and living through natural disasters, as well as providing food hampers, care packs, prepaid cards.
The Bureau of Meteorology said Australia has been in the grips of drought for several years, with below average rainfall plaguing farmers since early 2017, warning rainfall deficits may continue "for some time".
Mrs Johnston has been on the frontline of the drought and has seen firsthand the devastation and sense of helplessness it can cause.
"I've been in that household that's had the banks knocking, and about to lose everything on the farm, so I've seen what it does to our parents - my mum almost committed suicide because of it," she said.
"So I guess that's where my drive and passion is from, if I can stop one family from going through what our family went through - then I'm happy.
"I wish a had a bottomless pit of money so that I could go and pay off all of our farmers mortgages, and take away that financial stress from them so they can keep doing what they do best - and that's farming.
"But, if I can alleviate the pressure of some bills, and make sure they have food on their tables, so they can keep going and soldiering forward - it really can make the world of difference for somebody."
Growing up on a cattle and crop farm in Leyburn, and living in Brisbane before travelling out west with her husband Steele, Mrs Johnston said through Drought Angels she's been able utilise her compassionate and caring nature to help others, even when the pain stems from adversities life had thrown in her way.
"There were two key factors in starting Drought Angels, (the drought), and that I couldn't have kids because of endometriosis," she said.
"I'm a big believer that things in life happen for a reason, and that you just have to travel the journey to find out why, and my journey was being able to start Drought Angels, and to help other kids, and make a difference in their lives through their families.
"(Although), there is no I in team and I haven't done this without the support of all friends, friends that have helped me along the way, especially my amazing husband Steele who told me to get a hobby… but don't think this was quite what he had in mind," Mrs Johnston joked.
"He has been my backbone in all this."
A heart-wrenching moment burned into Mrs Johnston's memory happened with one of the first families she visited, when she witnessed a stoic farmer cry for the first time since his child was born.
"He just couldn't understand how or why somebody wanted to come out and help them," she said.
"That sticks with you that you've really made a difference in someone's life, and that they really appreciate the help… they're so grateful it really pulls at your heart."
The Chinchilla woman said she wanted to use her award to highlight farmers, as they are integral to the fabric of everyday Australian life - putting food on tables, and clothing on backs.
"Without them we'd be relying on imports for food, we are just such an incredibly lucky country... and we need to give farmers the respect they deserve," Mrs Johnston said.
"When you're at the shop, just change out five or six products, look at the labels to see if it's an Australian made product, or an Australian owned label.
"Or even just make sure you're picking up Australian grown fruit or vegetables."
If you're interested in donating your time, money, or non-perishable food and goods, call 4662 7371, or visit www.droughtangels.org.au for more information.