Selfless dedication

What makes the Moree community so vibrant is the infectious enthusiasm of locals like Eric Carrigan.

Pelicans lazily bob past his breathtaking Moree home on the unique peninsula where the Broadwater meets the Mehi, and Artillery must seem like a lifetime ago for Eric Carrigan.

Yet it is no coincidence that this returned soldier is also one of the district’s most generous, with memories of service continuing to tug his social conscience.

“Army service certainly ignited my sense of moral duties and instilled in me a very simple philosophy: in life you get what you give,” Eric explains. “I remember as a 20-year-old wearing the number six jersey for the Weebolla Bulls A Grade and having a girlfriend at my side thinking I was made; life couldn’t get any better! Little did I know that 12 months later they would both be gone.”

That year he was called up for National Service and served as a bombardier in Malaya during the Malayan Emergency from 1965 to 1967, posted to Artillery for one year and 48 days.

It is an experience that clearly had a profound effect on his life, and as one of Moree’s most active and selfless community contributors, it set the dial high on his moral compass.

“I made some wonderful friends from all walks of life. We relied heavily on each other for our mental, social and physical wellbeing and it was a valuable lesson in psychology. It augers well to understand other people and I have tried to apply this throughout my life since, be it in private enterprise managing people or more simply as an active community member.”

Shellshock, homesickness, dysentery – the harsh reality of army service was very real for the young soldier. “I don’t think it hurt, honestly. Life is not a walk in the park and such challenges certainly make us stronger; they also make the simple pleasures more enjoyable.”

Upon his return home to the family farm, ‘Mookoo’ at Garah, Eric soon regained not only the number six rugby jersey, but also his girlfriend and eventual wife, Anne-Marie Fingleton. Together they grew one of the district’s largest farming enterprises, ‘Tyrone Pastoral Company’, and raised their son Scott and daughter Michelle.

Jovial, optimistic and refreshingly content, Eric’s life is clearly richer thanks to his selfless dedication to others. Such is his contribution that he was last year honoured with an Order of Australia. “If life is kind to you then you should give back, and I feel very lucky that I have the time and means to dedicate to some of our residents less fortunate than myself.”

Two local entities are particularly close to his heart: Legacy, supporting war widows and Gwydir Industries Inc, which benefits the disabled. While it is common practice for veterans to support war widows through Legacy, Eric’s contribution raised the bar, spearheading the development of Moree’s only independent living facility for the elderly.

“I joined Legacy in 1992 and was allocated 12 widows to look after, which basically meant keeping an eye on their wellbeing, from their health and finances to providing general company. Two years later I became president of Moree Legacy and started to notice a few isolated widows in places like Boomi, Mungindi, Walgett and Collarenebri falling through the cracks, so I put it to the board that we fund something purpose built in Moree so they could be better cared for.”

So began the process of constructing what is now one of the community’s greatest assets: Rivergums, a fully secure community of 18 self-contained, two-bedroom units providing independent living for the elderly.

“We worked in conjunction with the local retirement centre next door, Fairview Nursing Home and Chick Charlesworth, the president of Legacy Australia who kindly donated $600,000 to get us started. We were able to build three units for Legacy widows and three units for Fairview residents looking for more independent care. It worked out beautifully and the infrastructure complemented Fairview perfectly.” The units are self-funding to allow for the opportunity to extend the facility, and more units are being built continually.

Eric admits that the Legacy workload has decreased over the years, “When I started we had 140 ladies on our books, now we have 60 and their needs have changed significantly. Whereas we used to take them on monthly bus trips visiting gardens, Cascades Theatre and Arts Council plays, now many of them are in their 90s so we keep things low key with a monthly lunch.

“I like to think we have provided these women with a quality of life they may not have had, and certainly I don’t know what we would do without Fairview and Rivergums – the staff are spot on and duty of care inspirational.”

Eric has also been instrumental in improving the quality of life for locals living with a disability through Gwydir Industries Inc, an organisation dedicated to providing such residents with meaningful employment. “In 1993 when I joined the board the organisation was floundering, it was short of money and meat raffles and local fundraisers were simply not cutting it. These wonderful residents of our community deserved so much more, so I took on the role of treasurer and looked at ways to fill the coffers.”

With no money to kick off a good fundraising event, he went to the local rugby club to co-host a function on the rugby grounds. The event was a success, raising $56,000 for the service and initiating the biannual Gwydir Industries fundraising events that have become legendary within the community. From fashion parades, dress-up balls and the hugely successful ‘Dancing with the Stars’ dinners, these fundraisers have become front and centre on the local social calendar. And the service is reaping the benefits.

“It’s a good feeling to know that Gwydir Industries is now financially secure, and we’ve also been able to put money into infrastructure such as forklifts, trucks, a bus, a $90,000 cotton wrap recycling machine and graphic designer for trophy production.”

The 26 clients of Gwydir Industries are now busier than ever recycling, painting and refurbishing furniture – giving them daily employment and providing respite for their carers.

“When I attend a board of directors meeting at Gwydir Industries you can’t help but have a feeling of wellbeing, it’s so rewarding to see these lovely people go to work each day with a sense of purpose and independence. It’s a beautiful thing.”

With Moree renowned for its generosity, Eric said he is constantly touched by the strength of community. “As far as giving goes, Moree is second to none. Our last fundraiser was a typical example. We’d had no rain for seven months, morale was a bit low and I’d been warned not to have high expectations.” The ‘Dancing with the Stars’ event was one of the most successful yet, raising over $65,000.

With his son Scott and family now running the farming operation, daughter Michelle Bookallil and family in Armidale and life-long friends settled in Moree, Eric and Anne-Marie made the move into town and built their riverside home 10 years ago.

“I was born in Moree, grew up at Garah, went to primary school in Mungindi, played rugby in Moree, raised my family at Gurley – it’s safe to say I’m pretty passionate about the whole district! Often we don’t realise how lucky we are in Moree. We have a great service centre of young and established professionals, lawyers, accountants, schools, healthcare plus a daily flight to Sydney. I’ve had a wonderful life here and wouldn’t have considered retiring anywhere else.”

Maybe it’s not luck that makes the Moree community vibrant, but more the infectious enthusiasm and countless hours of dedication by passionate and selfless locals such as Eric Carrigan.

STORY & PHOTOS Georgina Poole

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