The Bears to School programme has a mission – to enable every child to connect with Australia’s heritage of service in a meaningful and enduring way. Since its inception, more than 630 schools across the country have received Great War uniformed bears and learning materials. These bears have been great ambassadors of the Spirit of Anzac, and engaged a new generation with stories of service from Australia’s proudest hour.
For those eager to learn about the values of courage, endurance, mateship and sacrifice, nothing can rival meeting a national icon and decorated veteran in the flesh. The students and staff of Wiluna Remote Community School got just such an opportunity when Keith Payne VC paid a visit to their school, located in remote Western Australia.
The school is located in the small town of Wiluna, some 1,000 kilometres north-east of Perth in the Little Sandy Desert. The school’s ten teachers are dedicated to educating a student body of around 75 children, of whom most hail from the local Aboriginal Martu community. Despite the challenges faced by the school, particularly its sheer remoteness, it is making a tangible difference to the life of the community and the future of its children. In 2018, the school was awarded both the national CSIRO Indigenous STEM in School award, as well as the WA Premier’s Excellence in Aboriginal Education Award.
This was not Keith Payne’s first visit to the Wiluna Remote Community School. His love for this special part of Australia speaks to Keith’s longstanding concern for indigenous communities. Keith travels to these areas with his close friend, Mac Jensen. Mac is an ex-serviceman who served with the North-West Mobile Force (NORFORCE) and now is now extensively involved in Aboriginal community training initiatives. NORFORCE a unit that is tasked with the surveillance and reconnaissance of the remote areas of northern Australia. The unit recruits many Aboriginal soldiers into its ranks, who have invaluable local knowledge of the areas they patrol. During the past 20 years Keith has made regular visits to NORFORCE personnel and other remote Aboriginal communities to motivate and inspire those who choose to live and work in challenging circumstances in places like Torres Strait, the Kimberley, the Top End and the Western Deserts.
Education is a crucial issue in indigenous communities, and is also something that is close to Keith’s heart. It’s one of the reasons why he became involved with Bears to School as the project’s national ambassador. Keith’s candid personal message to the students in Wiluna certainly strikes a chord, coming from the man himself: “Come to school, attend regularly and make the most of the opportunities you have … often this will be difficult, but you can summon great courage in the face of difficulty to help you accomplish your goals.”
Fifty years after being awarded the Victoria Cross and becoming an Australian icon, Keith is passionate about finding ways to engage with children about themes that have shaped his life. However, for him it’s about more than just the past: “These kids are our future. It’s our duty to empower them to take on life on their own terms – that’s what education is all about. It’s also our responsibility to share with them the lessons we have learnt and the experiences we hold dear; experiences that have brought us to where we are today”.
With Keith’s passion, and through generous support from the Australian public, Bears to School is making progress in ensuring that every classroom receives its own ambassador of the Anzac Spirit.
Keith donated the Nurse Bernadette and Trooper Jones bears to the Wiluna Remote Community School. Join him and become part of the Bears to School family. Find out how you can donate a bear to the school of your choice.