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Australia Coronavirus pulled this community apart. The local club brought them back together

22:32  20 june  2020
22:32  20 june  2020 Source:   msn.com

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a close up of a man in glasses looking at the camera: For 40 years Wendy Welles has driven the kids in her town to school. (ABC: Back Roads) © Provided by ABC Grandstand For 40 years Wendy Welles has driven the kids in her town to school. (ABC: Back Roads)

About 8:00am each morning Wendy Welles starts the engine of her 18-seater gold-coloured bus for another school run.

She picks up her young neighbours first, Rory and Will, and then completes the 30-kilometre loop through the Victorian sheep country towns of Rokewood and Corindhap — their total population 340.

It takes her 45 minutes to pick up the eight children who go to the local primary school.

In the afternoon she does it all in reverse.

For 40 years, Wendy has sat behind the wheel of the bus.

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She's done it for so long, she's now driving the children of the children she used to drive.

Like Archie and Will, whose mum Sophie was one of the quietest little girls on the bus but would still offer a timid: "Good morning, Wendy."

She was never Mrs Welles, always Wendy. And she liked it that way.

And when the pandemic struck and the children stayed home, Wendy would still drive the bus.

It was part of the contract, in case essential workers needed to deposit children at school at short notice.

But it never happened and the silence of the bus was almost unbearable.

The missed celebrations

This was meant to be a big year for Wendy and her husband Neil.

There was the celebration of 40 years driving the bus and a 40-year wedding anniversary.

And Neil was going to celebrate 40 years in his role at the local football and netball club — the Hoppers.

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While Wendy played netball and coached, Neil strapped ankles and iced injuries for the men and women and boys and girls of the Hoppers.

He'd wear his signature white overalls and proudly stride onto the field to help heal a wound.

He has come a long way from not being able to put a bandaid on a cut thumb when he started.

"I know a lot of the oldies come back if there's a reunion or something like that and say, 'Geez Welles, you're still doing it,'" Neil says.

But that's what you'll do for Hoppers.

The club is at the core of almost every family in the region, about 130 kilometres west of Melbourne.

The two towns of Rokewood and Corindhap are only a few kilometres apart and the Hoppers Football and Netball Club is the glue that binds them.

There are the players and coaches, trainers and sponsors. And then the cheer squad which will turn up in sunshine or rain.

But when coronavirus forced people into their homes and the club doors were shut, a small community suddenly lost its heartbeat.

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The grandstand falls silent

Finances weren't the biggest issue. It was the mental health of everyone who relied on the teams for their circles of friendships.

Even volunteers who had retired to the coast would still return to work the canteen, clip the newspapers for the club's records and cheer on their players.

So many words have been written about big cities like New York and London that became ghost towns during the pandemic.

And here in Australia, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane were emptied of city workers, and trams and trains ran empty.

But what happens in small country towns when they're forced into isolation?

The games may have stopped, but like in so many other places around the world, the people found a way to stay connected.

The coach sent funny videos to players, the phones rang hot as each person was given another to check in on and they kept their spirits high.

Community sport is less about the sport and more about the community.

Being apart has proven to them how important being together is — that the club is just as important for their mental health as for their physical wellbeing.

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Leave your worries at the gate

Adele Nairn is a Hoppers stalwart who even has the best and fairest medal named after her.

She was born here, played here, married here. And her children are just as keen to wear the green and white Hopper colours.

Like her son Matthew, who was selling bales of hay out the front of the house for $10 to save up enough to buy his first pair of boots for a footy season that never happened.

"When we look back on this time in isolation I think we will really see that it's validated what we've always known about the club," Adele says.

"That the club, beyond sport, is a hub for people to come together.

"To leave your worries at the gate, forget about the day to day troubles of life and enjoy yourself, get that sense of belonging and enjoy being with other likeminded people who have the same values as you."

Who knows when the Hoppers' song will be heard again, but they'll sing it loud.

"Are we good, are we good, are we any bloody good," will reverberate around the change rooms.

They might not be back full time in 2020 but when the next season's underway they'll make sure they take a moment to celebrate Neil and Wendy and all their 40-year milestones.

Because that's what a club that is really a family does.

Watch the episode of Back Roads in Rokewood and Corindhap at 8:00pm on Monday on ABC TV and iview.

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