25. Harry Prout

21 Feb

Screen Shot Harry crp[We had heard a lot about the impressive accomplishments of Brother Harry Prout, yet as our interview commenced, I don’t think either of us were prepared to be quite as blown away as we were by the amazing tales of a life of generosity and compassion that Harry had to tell.

Raised on a dairy farm, Harry’s own life had modest beginnings. His family life consisted of simplistic things such as growing potatoes, or “spuds” on their farm, looking after their flocks of sheep and riding bikes around – “we were generally pretty feral actually!” Harry jokes. But his childhood was also one of work, as he recalls having to milk the cows early each morning and then head off to school. On his return from a day of classes, Harry continued working, taking over the milking from his mother before dinner time. Such dedicated, hardworking attributes shone through early in Harry’s life and it is easy to see how he has carried this selfless attitude into later life. Not only that, but growing up on a farm enabled Harry to gain “a sense of nature, and God’s presence in nature”, what with new life surrounding him all the time, as calves that were born came into milking and eventually had babies of their own.

Harry’s strong beliefs and a desire to find a new life led him to join the Marist brothers. The institute of the Brothers was created in 1817, originally with a focus on educating poor and rural children in France, an aspiration that is still true of the organisation nowadays. Harry describes how their goal was to help the poor and the powerless. For Harry himself, he had always felt a particular pull towards helping the outcasts and the poor amongst society, “standing up for justice” in the same way that his other family members did. His charitable instincts could perhaps run in the family, as his mother was a nurse who cared for Aboriginal mothers who had their children taken away, while his father worked in Aboriginal Affairs.

Helping the young did not stop with his involvement in the Marist Brothers. Throughout Harry’s life, he has been actively involved in retreat work all around Australia, particularly at school camps. Harry believes that this sort of experience has enabled him to realise that sometimes it is necessary to just stop and ask an individual how they are going in life. The response to this question is sometimes shocking, particularly when it comes from such young people who are incredibly ambitious, aspiring individuals who have unfortunately suffered throughout their lives.

Harry has a background of teaching and has taught in 4 different schools across Australia. With a chuckle Harry acknowledges that aside from a smattering of English, History and Religion; he used to teach dance and movement for a while. “One of the things I miss most, actually, when I gave up teaching, was producing musicals… Such a great community building activity [where] the natural talents of kids really shine through.” Through years of being a teacher, Harry gained an understanding of the importance of education and learning being present in a child’s life – making him all the more valuable in his current position. When asked how he came to be in West Heidelberg, Harry explains that he had been working at a retreat centre in Mt Macedon, in a position of leadership. When he was approached by a woman named Sister Sally, who was accompanying a group of students, to come and work in their community, Harry felt ready to move on from his current position and accept a new challenge. Moving into the new area proved to be a big change for Harry, not merely because of the different surroundings but the people he lived with were not just other Brothers, but people from around the area. Harry notes, “It was actually the first time I had lived with women, so that was a big learning curve for me!”

Harry’s initiation into the community wasn’t easy. He had grown up and lived in a middle class society; therefore this new environment was confronting and at times “awkward”. He reminisces on the very fond memories of being assaulted up as he tried to intervene in a fight between young boys. It was a long journey for Harry, but he eventually built a good rapport with all groups in the community. These relationships have led to a lot of mutual trust and respect; they would all do anything for each other.

According to Harry, coming to West Heidelberg has helped increase his sensitivity and compassion towards those with disabilities. It has given him “a richer” understanding of mental illnesses, something he considers a “blessing”, and has also been in close contact with other less fortunate people. “In the neighbourhood, 20% of the population are Somali refugees”, remarks Harry, and it is because of this he has come to understand a lot more about their plight. A quiet kind of pride seeps into Harry’s voice as he recalls the Somalian refugees he has had contact with. He notes that unfortunately, in war-torn countries, usually it is not the poor and the disadvantaged who manage to escape, but those with a higher standing and some wealth. Therefore the refugees who have settled out here are the ones who already value education. “They know about education and they aspire to education.” Harry conveys to us a sense of their bravery and resourcefulness in making a life for themselves in Australia, and explains how even though they have known what it is to be educated, often out here they cannot afford such luxury and this can be very degrading for them. We, two privileged young girls who have just successfully completed Year 12, were stunned to hear about the ongoing conditions for these refugees and the fiery passion that Harry harbours in regards to looking out for those who come from war-torn countries was nothing less than inspiring.

West Heidelberg, the suburb that Harry currently resides in, is one of the most disadvantaged areas in Victoria. The level of poverty experienced by the town is very confronting. The number of individuals who have or do suffer with mental illness, abandonment, divorce, or alcohol and drug reliance is extremely high. Harry believes that sometimes bad experiences lead to even worse experiences, for example a single mother may consume unhealthy amounts of alcohol in order to “numb the pain” of her situation. This domino effect only contributes to the cycle of poverty in this small town.

Harry informs us that one major issue in the community is increasing obesity, particularly amongst youth. Living conveniently close to many fast-food restaurants has resulted in the community’s large consumption of foods high in saturated and trans fats. This unhealthy diet leads to the risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and many other health problems later in life. In order to tackle this issue, Harry has proactively promoted healthy eating by teaching them the convenience of healthy alternatives. He opens his house for “drop in lunches”, providing healthy meals to the community. Harry also raves about the Summer BBQs which are regularly held in his backyard. Harry believes that the popularity of his services has merely been spread through word of mouth. The number of people who drop by Harry’s house for lunch continuously increases, enough so that the visiting list has extended to over 300 families.

It took Harry a while to adjust to his new lifestyle, but he quickly learned that what was needed most in the community was someone to listen and allow the local people to give voice to what they really wanted. “I soon came to see that we have two ears and one mouth for a reason, so I did a lot of listening.” Most of the young people claimed they just wanted somewhere to go and “hang out”, so the house Harry lived in, the very house we sat in for our interview, became like a place of refuge and rest, where all were welcome. It was touching to hear Harry describe how the house would sometimes hold big gatherings with up to 20 people, who would all come along to enjoy a meal and support each other. When prompted to talk about winning the Jaga Jaga Australia Day Award, he quickly asserts that it was awarded to “the whole community”.

“[It was] just a recognition of the volunteer work we do,” Harry modestly tells us. The award was presented as a token to acknowledge how he and the other workers managed to “identify with people who are poor, to see if we could help them in anyway. … We just wanted… to journey with the people… understand what it’s like in their boots.”

The small, modest house that we sat in for the interview was the home that Harry had slept, cooked, showered and invited people into over the past few years. It was a very small abode, although it had a cosy, welcoming atmosphere that everybody who walked through the door felt. Harry explains how his home and the many neighbouring houses were built over 56 years ago for the Olympians of the 1956 Olympic Games which were held in Melbourne. Harry acknowledges that the houses in the Olympic Village were not “built to last”, resulting in many maintenance issues, mould and extreme temperature conditions during the hotter and colder months. Despite this, Harry graciously lives in his small home, taking advantage of the luxuries that his life has been granted with.
Harry’s work amongst his community is very important. Sadly, education isn’t regarded as a priority like it is for those in higher socio-economic areas. Very few in Harry’s area actually finish year 12. There’s not a lot of encouragement to go to school, and even if they do, they don’t achieve very high results. Harry believes that education is the “key to confidence” and in order to promote learning amongst the community, he wanted to provide a safe haven away from the chaos and mess at home for young kids to get their homework done to a sufficient standard. This eventuated in the local homework club, which enabled children to get help with their Maths and English at a proper working table. The club grew, although Harry recognised that the kids who desperately needed the help weren’t coming and taking advantage of the amazing services. In addition, hardly any kids are involved in sports, despite Harry’s best efforts to start up a netball team a few years back. The cost for the right footwear and uniforms is just too expensive, and some children don’t even have access to a car to go to the games or parents willing to go along and encourage them. Harry therefore helped push for the creation of the Bike Shed, a project funded by the council that enabled them to loan out bikes to children, and maintain the scooters and bikes that kids already owned. It also provided a designated destination for young kids to feel welcome to come and bond with Harry and other volunteers over their bikes and scooters, allowing them to open up about their circumstances at home.

Harry sounded very excited to report that they recently received a grant from Bendigo Bank for a whole new selection of scooters. The benefits of such a program have been astounding and while he waves away much of the praise that he is given, it all comes down to the hard work Harry has put in to making his community a better place.

Words By:Annabelle Pendlebury and Joely Mitchell

Photo by: Sean Porter

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One Response to “25. Harry Prout”

  1. Cathy Porter February 21, 2013 at 10:17 am #

    Truly inspiring. What a wonderful job Harry does in the West Heidelberg area. Also, Great article girls, really enjoyed this inspiring post.

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