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Adopt a family: Optometrist launches bushfire initiative

A Queensland couple who operate an independent optometry practice have devised a novel plan to support people affected by the bushfire crisis and hope it will catch on in other parts of Australia.

Richard and Gwen Watt, who own and operate Richard Watt Optometrist in Hervey Bay, have launched a project to adopt 10-30 of the hardest hit families and individuals in a fire-affected town for the next 18 months.

The money would be distributed via a local Rotary club and used to top up government handouts. The “no strings attached” payments of up to $250 per week would be used to pay for extra items and activities to restore normality in their lives.

“I’m quite sure there will be ex-gratia payments plus Centrelink payments, but all of that will provide just a bare subsistence level of existence, just allowing these people to survive,” Richard Watt said, adding that many have lost their livelihoods.

“If we can top that up by giving families a couple of hundred dollars a week as some pocket money, then they won’t get to the end of the week with $4 and think ‘cripes, we need nappies’, or maybe they need to put a tank of gas in the car because the grocery store in town has been lost in the fires.

“If they’ve managed their money wisely, maybe once a month they might do something nice and normal, like a meal at the local pub with the family, rather than being in this desperate destitute situation where they have got nothing and are barely surviving.”

The Watts have kicked off the project by pledging to donate 1% of their business’ monthly gross income for the next 18 months. The cause is gathering momentum with a stream of other Hervey Bay community members getting on board.

They have also identified a community they will support – Conjola, a small town located on the New South Wales south coast that lost more than 50 properties on New Year’s Day.

Richard Watt said the community was nominated by the Rotary Club of Milton-Ulladulla, which is identifying the most needy people. The club has set up a bank account specifically for the initiative and will distribute the funds.

Not one cent spared

The project will aim to give $50 per week to individuals, $100 for a couple and up to $250 for a family.

“We don’t want one single cent to be lost in fees or administration – we want every single cent to get to other people at the end,” Richard Watt said.

“We know from our long association with Rotary that all clubs around Australia have a really tight constitution and by-laws that separates and absolutely forbids any siphoning of community services money into general accounts or administration purposes.”

He said it was vital people got on board and committed a set amount for the full 18-month period, no matter how little they were willing to donate.

“We don’t want the Rotary club for the first three months getting $4000 or even $10,000 per month into the account and thinking we can support 35 families before it gets to month four and the money starts to dwindle.

“This could leave them in a difficult situation where they may have to decide which families to cut or maybe everyone is short-changed. We want everyone to make a regular, consistent commitment.”

Gwen Watt added: “It’s our hope when we set up this module for helping Conjola that other communities around Australia will think what a brilliant idea, let’s get on board and support another community.

“If we have the non-affected areas supporting affected areas, imagine how much good we could do knowing that 100% of everything raised will go to those victims … and they can have some normality back in their lives.”

A video explaining the project can be found here, and more information is available on the Richard Watt Optometrist Facebook page.