Denise Hagan, Founder and Director

When the Queensland State Government handed down the Fitzgerald Report and the Cape York Justice Study in 2002, Denise Hagan had no idea they were about to change her life forever.

In response to the report the government instituted an initiative called Government Champions. Denise’s boss, Jim Varghese was appointed the ‘Government Champion’ for Lockhart River (though Jim himself prefers the term Community Champion).

Denise was working for the Queensland Government at the time, enjoying a highly successful career, as the youngest woman ever promoted to the role of Senior Project Executive.

Denise was no stranger to challenge. She had overcome personal adversities, and in her role as a public servant she had been witness to many more. But her life in Toowoomba, home of the annual flower show, had not prepared her for the experience waiting for her when the light plane touched down on her first trip to the remote Aboriginal community in Lockhart River.

“I still remember my first visit. And before I go on it is important to note that when I say its remote, I mean remote. It is over two and a half thousand kilometres from where we are in Brisbane today. That’s 35 hours driving time, assuming the roads are open, which they aren’t for 4 or 5 months of the year during the wet season. If you can afford the $1,200 return ticket from Cairns, it’s a two hour flight.”

The plane touched down, and though Denise did not know it at the time, a new chapter of her life, and the journey of the Puuya Foundation had begun.

“Despite my years of public service, I was not prepared for the overwhelming and conflicting experiences I was about to see and hear. The disadvantage was devastating. I could not believe that such poverty and disadvantage could exist here in Queensland, in Australia, in the 21st century. Something as simple as fresh food costs 65% more in Lockhart River, in a community where the majority of people are living below the poverty line.”

Initially there were many in the community who were understandably hesitant about engaging with yet another government envoy, looking to impose their ideas on the local community.

“We laugh about it now, but during that first visit it was made very clear to us that they weren’t interested in another government program being imposed upon them without their involvement,” Denise said.

“It was completely understandable, and it was instantly obvious that the first barrier we were going to have to overcome was trust. It was something we were going to need to earn, because if we couldn’t come to a place of trust and mutual respect, we weren’t going to make any advances.”

As Denise and Jim worked on building mutual trust, they were promptly inspired by the amazing spirit and resilience of the people, particularly a core group of traditional elders and aspiring leaders who were keen to build a better future for the community. It was also very clear that historic ways of initiating and managing programs and funding would be ineffective and not a strategic use of resources. It was decided the best way to develop a strategic understanding would be for Denise to reside in the community for a time.

“To their great credit, the government understood that this was not something I could learn about from a desk in Brisbane. To truly understand the challenges being faced in Lockhart River I needed to live in the community for three months,” Denise said.

“In the end I stayed for five and a half years.”

Initially Denise’s time in Lockhart River was in her capacity as a public servant. As time went on, Denise learned more and came to be accepted as part of the community.

“I was privileged with even greater insights and understandings about life in a remote Aboriginal community and it became increasingly clear that the standard models for supporting remote communities were just not working. There was a lot of money being wasted, and many opportunities to make a difference were being missed.”

“Local, state and federal governments play an absolutely essential and vital role in remote communities, but by their very nature they can be slow moving, bound by red tape, and confined to a one-size-fits most approach – where Lockhart River didn’t fit into the ‘most’. And so despite well-meaning intentions, despite diligent efforts, there were gaps the government could not fill well.”

Denise faced a personal crossroads. She could write reports detailing her findings to her boss, lament the devastating state of affairs in the remote Aboriginal community or she could do something.

“It would have been very easy to throw my hands in the air and say – it can’t be fixed, or to suggest that somebody else should do something about it. But I chose to be that somebody.”

Denise decided to create an organisation outside the red tape constraints of government: an organisation that didn’t seek to compete with government services but rather to complement them. An organisation that did not follow the traditional western model of flying in and telling remote communities what their problems are, and how they should be fixed.

The Puuya Foundation would exist to develop local capacity and support the local community to identify and own their challenges and implement strategic solutions.

“Clearly I chose to jump off the cliff and do what I could to make the world better. I left my successful career to embark on a journey with the beautiful people of Lockhart River. The Puuya Foundation was formed with a singular purpose – to empower the local community to identify and own their challenges, develop strategies to combat them and determine and shape their own futures.”

“I don’t know where my career would be today if I had chosen to simply submit a report on the problems rather than embark on a journey to create the solutions, but I know my life would be the lesser for it.”

“Because apart from the personal rewards, we are making a difference. The unique approach being used by the Puuya Foundation is working. Together, we are changing the future for the people of Lockhart River.”