Since December Phil and Jo Thompson have been transforming the former Goorambat Primary School into a retreat for veterans while operating an essential advocacy service.
Driving down the idyllic, shaded country road and pulling up outside the old school house, the atmosphere of relaxation is hard to avoid.
The gardens are partially landscaped and a vegetable patch in the distance is watched over by a dutiful scarecrow.
As I approach the gate Phil Thompson comes out to meet me with his two excited dogs.
“Welcome to the Goorambat Veterans’ Retreat,” he says with a smile on his face.
Phil is clearly proud of what he and Jo have achieved and is keen to sit down and talk about what the retreat can offer - and to whom.
One point he brings up quickly is that the image that an average person on the street might have of a veteran, is often inaccurate.
“When you say veterans, people think of old men marching up the street with World War II medals on,” Phil said
“But that doesn’t relate to all veterans.
“We've had thousands of veterans coming out of the Middle East who are under 35.
“I'd need to check the exact figure, but it is around 25,000 of them.
“And they often don't see themselves as veterans. They get home and go straight back into the workforce.”
The changing landscape of Australia's armed forces in terms of recruitment and the average length of service has driven a need for an alternative to traditional RSLs - which Phil and Jo are seeking to address.
Phil said often RSLs did not have the funding to offer wellbeing services, and many younger veterans would not even consider joining, as they saw them as more of a club for the older generations.
“Traditionally in the services a person would join for three years, then leave or re-enlist for another three,” Phil said.
“So they had a model of signing on, and signing on, and serving indefinitely.
“But nowadays someone might sign up, be deployed for six months in the Middle East, and then they're satisfied and are happy to transition out of the armed services.
“They signed up to experience it, they've had their moment in the sun and they are happy with that.”
As a result there is now a much higher number of veterans re-entering society than in previous years.
And they often have a very different experience to veterans who might have served for many years during conflicts decades ago, such as World War II, for example.
Many have mental health issues.
Many have physical injuries that might hinder them in the future - and many will need access to veterans’ support services, mental heath services and a range of advocacy programs.
Phil said that as a result of that need, there were now a number of veterans’ retreats across Australia.
“It is worth noting that when it comes to creating a veterans’ retreat there are many different models,” Phil said.
“They are often run by people who have some acreage and put a couple of spots in the corner for veterans to drag their caravans in and camp.
“The problem with those are that when those people retire or move on, maybe pass away, and properties are sold or inherited, it’s entirely on the whim of the family whether that remains a veterans’ retreat or not - and many close.
“Some others will have wellbeing activities in place. Some will work with mental health experts and psychologists.
“They connect with the likes of Open-Arms which is the Department of Veterans’ Affairs arm which deals with psychiatry and mental health services.
“That was started by the Vietnam veterans and anyone who has served one day in the defence forces can access that service with trained psychologists.
“So that's the model we’re working towards.
“Our plan is to progressively develop this place, so we can have wellbeing activities conducted here.
“Whether it’s just a one-day workshop, or a three-day residential we would like to offer a few options.
“There is a program for couples where either, or both, have suffered from mental health conditions due to their service.
“You go there and work together to understand what it is that is affecting you and how it impacts on your family.
“So where a lot of other veterans’ retreats are just drop-in camp sites offering a bit of peace and quiet, we will offer quite a bit more.”
With regards to the advocacy side of things, Phil said the work done to support veterans across Australia was vital.
“We spoke a couple of weeks ago about the grant of $44,000 we received,” Phil said in reference to an article published in The Ensign earlier this month.
“That has to be spent on advocacy and is fully audited.
“So if we need to repair the roof, for example, we need to get a different grant or fundraise.
“So all of that grant will go to supporting veterans making claims, or who might be experiencing homelessness, for example.
“It goes into things like running our office here, and in addition to that it helps us with delivering services to the veterans who come here.
“And we are available to help veterans across the state, and even interstate.
“Everything we do now can be done remotely with things like FaceTime.
“We also refer people if there are better options for them.
“For example we might get a call from somebody in Albury.
“Albury has very good resources in relation to the Hume veterans support centre – it's massive.
“And they get a lot of funding to help with that, so we would be happy to refer a local person to them.
“Of course sometimes people have called an out of town service for a reason and they don’t want people in their local community knowing what’s going on.
“And in a case like that we would be happy to help.”
One local inquiry Phil received highlighted the difficulty many veterans had.
“When I first got here I got a call from one of the local caravan parks,” Phil said.
“They had a veteran on site. Someone had bought his caravan in, left it there and disappeared.
“He appeared to have a few mental health issues, and he’d been there for 30 odd days.
“Nowadays the tenancies act dictates that caravan parks cannot have people on site for any more than 28 days.
“After than it becomes a situation that requires a rental or lease agreement.
“Some people would have responded with ‘what do you want me to do about it?'
“But that's not what we do here.
“So over the next three days we had to get to the bottom of who he was; what conditions he had; and who had serviced him previously.
“He had been in the arms of the Salvation Army and many other welfare organisations already.
“So he was known. But he was just sitting out there as he didn't have a driving licence or a car.
“A mate just towed his caravan out there and left him there.
“And that's where we come in - that’s a wellbeing issue.
“We were called to look into him, look after him, and to determine what his requirements were.
“There’s a whole process we go through in advocacy to satisfy all of those things, and to make sure he had the help he needs.”
In spite of the occasional example like this, Phil is generally talking in terms of what he and Jo have planned, and that is largely as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Having purchased the property in December the couple had wanted to be a bit better established by July, however, like many organisations across the world, they have been forced to adapt.
“Jo knew that I wanted to do something like this and last year we were flicking though one of the real estate websites and saw this school,” Phil said.
“But we were certain it would have been sold as the price was very reasonable.
“However, it turns out it wasn’t sold, so we headed up to take a look.”
After some negotiating Phil and Jo signed the contracts and got to work.
“The school closed in 2010 and had sat empty for a decade,” Phil said.
“It was all boarded up and that was the only thing that really saved it - the fact that people couldn’t get in and smash the windows and things.”
With a mountain of work ahead of them to develop the land and to get the old school buildings back to their former glory, the couple had hoped to get some volunteers to help.
“That is when COVID-19 hit,” Phil said.
“Which meant no volunteer workforce at all.
“Normally we’d call on the volunteers from Young Veterans in Melbourne, and a few other places.
“But no-one has been able to come here because of the communal facilities.
“So Jo and I have been chipping away at it and what you see now is the product of our efforts during the last six months.
“We have done a lot of work inside, it needed to be rewired and re-stumped. Just about everything about it had to be worked on.”
And the work involved has been selfless with the couple immediately donating the property to the charity once they purchased it — that charity being the veterans’ retreat itself.
“We bought it for the charity, and the charity will continue to manage it long after we are gone.”
● If you, or someone you know, might benefit from speaking to Phil, or require any help, you can phone the Goorambat Veterans’ Retreat on 5764 1468.
● To find out more search for Goorambat Veterans Retreat on Facebook.