Australia’s Rural Woman of the Year says country communities need a common purpose in order to thrive.

Story By Gretel Sneath

Some people collect desert sand in bottles as lasting mementos of travels across the country. Sarah Powell would sooner bottle the people she meets along the way, storing their wisdom and influence for times when the stocks are low – like the day she returned to Darke Peak. After more than a decade working away in Western Australia and Queensland, Sarah paid a visit to her hometown on South Australia’s Eyre Peninsula and was shocked by the transformation.
“I went back to Darke Peak just over three years ago to find the proverbial tumbleweed blowing down the main street,” she says. “The school had closed 12 years before, and the general store, post office and other local businesses I remembered as a kid were long gone.”
The sporting club was still there, but the proud football and netball club that represented it had folded long ago, and the torn AstroTurf on the courts flapped in the dry wind as Sarah looked on in despair. “It hit me that this had been the place where so many of us gathered, not just to socialise and play sport, but to learn how to be an active contributor to our community,” she says.
Her own family had walked off the land in the early 1980s when interest rates were at a historic high, and Sarah has a vivid recollection of leaving the farm as a seven year old. “That place was my whole world, and I didn’t understand exactly what was going on or why we couldn’t stay,” she says. “The physical pain as we drove away felt like my heart had been torn from my body and tossed out of the car window somewhere between the shearing shed and the dam paddock.”
The Powells shifted into town and later moved to Kimba, an hour down the road. Sarah went on to study at university in Adelaide before heading north to explore new horizons. By the age of 30, she was a CEO sourcing and promoting projects designed to create jobs and stimulate spending in Far North Queensland and the Torres Strait. She became a strong advocate for investment in emerging leaders, believing that true sustainable development could only happen if the projects included provisions to up-skill people. “I saw little point in throwing money at projects or industries if we didn’t equip the next generation of leaders with the skills to continue to drive them,” she says.
This vision drove boardroom discussions, and she became a trailblazer in her volunteer work. “The next Anna Bligh,” associates would say, hailing her natural ability to draw people in.

This Story is from Issue #104

Outback Magazine: Dec/Jan 2016