5 March 2024

Shifting the conversation around booze in the bush: Shanna Whan joins Jerilderie luncheon

| Vanessa Hayden
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Woman stands with her horse

Shanna Whan will be a special guest speaker at the Chicks in the Sticks luncheon in Jerilderie on 17 March. Photo Supplied.

”From little things, big things grow” is a classic line made famous by musician Paul Kelly and a theme Shanna Whan knows all too well.

The founder and CEO of Sober in the Country (SITC) and Australian of the Year Award recipient (Local Hero, 2022) has now spent almost a decade working to open up overdue conversations around the truth of alcohol harm in rural areas.

The irony here is that it wasn’t a ”little thing” that set Shanna on her current path of changing the national conversation on the topic. In fact, it was her own life-and-death battle with alcohol addiction.

After she fought back and made it out alive, against all odds, the ”little thing” she nursed, which was a desire to do something with her second chance, has gone on to see Shanna build something astonishing.

Through her tireless advocacy, SITC has grown from an online blog into a nationally respected, grassroots not-for-profit, shifting the entire conversation around booze in the bush.

And it’s saving and changing lives. Far from being anti-alcohol, the charity focuses on the connection between mental health and alcohol abuse and harm using straight talk and the #OK2SAYNO movement.

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Shanna has just been announced as a special guest speaker at a Chicks in the Sticks luncheon to be held in Jerilderie on 17 March.

”I am super excited to be coming to the Riverina because it was home for me in another life, and it’s a special place,” she said.

“My message for the local women coming along to the Jerilderie lunch will be the same as it is for any group of women.

“I will simply speak the truth about what we’ve seen and learned after nearly a decade working to lead powerful social impact and change in terms of alcohol awareness – and how the women there can be involved, support others, and help us to be the change rural Australia needs to keep seeing.

”The fact that the committee reached out to me and then chose to make the event alcohol-free was extremely touching and special. It’s not something I request; many of the events I speak at serve alcohol.

“But it shows to me that our message around inclusion and taking the focus off alcohol and placing it on people in our communities is reaching every corner of the outback. To me, that is indescribably special.”

These days, Shanna is a little more selective about where she travels and the events she attends. It’s been a whirlwind few years, with trips to Western Australia, Darwin and outback cattle stations. Oh, and did we mention she accompanied the Prime Minister to represent rural Australia at the funeral of the Queen of England?

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Having dealt with chronic fatigue off the back of an incredibly difficult personal past 12 months, she’s made 2024 a time for paring back and prioritising her health. She says it’s also important that she feels aligned with the organisations and events she is invited to speak at.

“I operate on a heart-first, health-first basis now and try to listen to my body and simply do what I can with what I have,” she said. ”I limit travel and carefully consider where I am going and what I am doing.

“I spent five years without a cent of income to establish this charity, and these days I go where our message [and my time] is valued, and I speak where those who value our contributions to rural mental health donate back to SITC as a way of keeping us going.”

Shanna said she struggled to quantify how many people the charity’s message had reached, but estimated, conservatively, it’s millions – from the episode Last Drinks on the ABC’s Australian Story to various online media forums.

She rarely travels these days to an area where the audience hasn’t heard of Sober in the Country.

“It’s very humbling, but more importantly it tells me the truth that our work is resonating nationally.”

Asked how she prepared for her talks, Shanna said her speeches were the same as the charity’s approach: “organic, heartfelt and real”.

Shanna lives in north-western NSW with her husband, Tim, and her two best mates, Mallee the blue heeler and Biscuit the Jack Russell.

The Chicks in the Sticks luncheon will be held in Jerilderie on 17 March. You can secure your ticket by contacting Bronwyn at [email protected], or by booking online here.

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