Christmas Lifestyle

Meet the outback Mrs and Mr Claus ensuring thousands of farmers and families have a merry Christmas

“Helping people brings us joy”

By Astha Gupta
Every Christmas morning Brian Egan puts on his Akubra hat, kisses his wife Nerida goodbye, jumps in his 4WD and heads off to work.
He leaves their farmhouse at dawn and Nerida doesn't see him pulling back into the driveway until well after sundown.
It's a gruelling day for the 71-year-old but she sends him off with good wishes.
"Working keeps him happy and when he's happy I'm happy," says Brian's wife of 44 years.
Nerida believes Brian's work moves mountains – it's saved their marriage, Christmas and the lives of countless farmers across Australia.
And it's all because 15 years ago he and Nerida started the charity Aussie Helpers. Since then they've worked tirelessly to ensure Christmas isn't a stressful time for people living on the land.
"If a farmer can't support his kids during Christmas their chances of falling into depression are high, so we try to get to as many as we can and distribute household items, non-perishable food, pet food and toys," Nerida says.
"There is no joy in the festival for us if our farmers are facing droughts, bushfires or floods and committing suicide."
And their work doesn't stop after the festive season.
Throughout the year the charity provides hay, food, toiletries, farm repairs and dental care to battling outback families. It also arranges coastal holidays, counselling services and financial aid.
Basically, they're an essential lifeline. So how did it all begin?
When Nerida and Brian tied the knot they planned to live a simple life raising their children Tash, 43, Sam, 42, Kelly, 37, and Tori, 36.
Brian was ex-navy and working in sales while Nerida looked after the kids. In the mid-1990s they took over a modest cattle farm in Dalby, Queensland, but in harsh conditions, they fell behind in their payments and the property was repossessed.
Brian struggled to cope with the awful situation.
Unbeknown to Nerida, he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder which partly stemmed from witnessing terrible atrocities in Vietnam and Borneo in the '60s while serving in the Australian Navy.
His anxiety over the drought just made it worse.
"Nothing pleased him, he had no patience with the kids and became short-tempered," Nerida recalls. "It was a dark phase in our lives."
Brian started hiding in one room, refusing to talk. Nerida often found him in tears.
Twice he even tried to take his own life – and that's when she knew he needed professional help. He was admitted to a special veterans' hospital and received vital medical assistance for depression.
"He stayed for a year but even after coming home he hadn't recovered fully," Nerida says. "He began working in welfare for a charity and I realised the only thing that made him smile was helping others."
Brian's depression finally lifted and it saved their relationship.
Working with farmers, Brian soon realised what a poor state many were in. One day, after doing welfare work for a year, he made an announcement.
"Brian told me he wanted to start a charity and I felt sick to my stomach," Nerida admits.
"We were on pensions ourselves and had no backing or support but he rattled off his grand plans for the farmers. I didn't know what to say, so I said, 'OK'."
Just three days later, Aussie Helpers was officially born.
Nerida withdrew the month's spare change of $20 and bought a food hamper and every week the couple would hold a raffle offering the hamper as a prize. She also asked friends to donate clothes which she could auction off.
Within three months they'd raised $1000, which they then ploughed back into buying more hampers.
They borrowed a friend's trailer and set off distributing the food hampers around Dalby in time for Christmas 2002. The region was suffering from a terrible drought and many people were doing it desperately tough.
"Farmers are proud people – they never ask for handouts but if you give them something they accept it graciously," Nerida says. "Even a small gift of a lipstick was so welcome."
Word spread about Aussie Helpers via the bush telegraph. Farmers began calling them and donations started to trickle in from around the country.
Nerida decided to remain in the background, becoming the charity's backbone by preparing food boxes, organising toys and distributing the donated goods while fielding many phone calls from farmers and their wives every day.
Brian happily became the public face of the operation, on the road seven days a week providing food or psychological support – sometimes just having a cuppa with those who craved a friendly face and a chinwag.
Aussie Helpers has raised more than $14 million since its inception and has 25 volunteers working around the clock visiting almost every station and farm in the country, asking people how they are and what they need.
The couple's children couldn't be prouder of what their industrious parents have achieved, including the numerous local and national awards they've received over the years.
Daughter Sam, who's been working with Nerida and Brian at the charity since the beginning, can attest to how her folks have sacrificed their personal time and money to save farmers' lives, keep struggling families together and feed starving animals.
Asked if she wouldn't sometimes prefer to spend her Christmas Day with Brian and their children and 17 grandkids, Nerida just laughs.
"My husband wouldn't be here if it weren't for Aussie Helpers. We want to spend every moment alive helping whoever we can," she declares with enormous pride. "To us it's the real meaning of Christmas."
To support Aussie Helpers or if you need help, head to the website www.AussieHelpers.org.au or call 1300 665 232.