Three years ago, Gulidjan girl Piper Stewart began helping Indigenous kids get swimming lessons in Griffith, in country NSW.
“I was at the pool one day and I noticed there weren't a lot of Aboriginal kids there swimming,” says Piper, who is now 15. “I asked my mum why and she told me how expensive it is, even for a term. So I decided to raise money, to help pay to teach Aboriginal kids how to swim.”
Piper, who lives in Bilbul, six kilometres north-east from Griffith, set about her aim immediately, helped by her mother, Allison Stewart. “Piper actually wanted to start by teaching Aboriginal kids to swim,” says Allison. “I said, ‘You’re 12, you can't teach, you need to be qualified and a certain age’.
“I said, ‘Go away and think of another way that you could help encourage other Aboriginal kids how to swim. And that's when she came back and said, ‘Can we pay for their lessons?’ And I said, ‘Yes, we can’.”
The Stewarts, who live on Wiradjuri Country, decided to start a charity. They named it Bambigi, which means ‘to swim’. Piper worked to raise money with trivia nights and garage sales and sold raffle tickets and fundraising chocolates. In 2019, during a NAIDOC swimathon that she organised, Piper swam eight kilometres non-stop for three hours.
Since 2019, the Bambigi swimming program, which is based at the Griffith Regional Aquatic Centre, has now funded swimming lessons for 150 kids. Every child who enrols in the six-month scheme also receives goggles, a drink bottle, a bag and a swimming cap proudly displaying the Aboriginal flag.
Piper says she is proud to have helped local kids build their confidence in the water. “Swimming is a life skill,” she says. “It’s good for health and also for water safety.”
Helping keep kids safe
Water safety is particularly important for Indigenous kids. The Royal Life Saving Society says Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are four times more likely to drown than non-Indigenous Australians.
Many local kids swim in the irrigation channels which pass directly through the township. “They’re cool, the kids like to swim there and it's free, unlike the pool,” says Allison. “But they're extremely unsafe. So it’s also about teaching our kids how to swim so they're not going to drown if they take the risk of swimming in a channel.”
Allison says many kids have continued lessons after finishing the Bambigi program. One student has even gone on to compete in the NSWPSSA state championships in Sydney.
“At school swimming carnival time, a lot of the parents send us photos of their kids and say, ‘They won their first ribbon’, or, ’It's the first time they’ve swum 50 metres’, which they couldn't do six months ago. They're not my children but I get quite proud of them, seeing them achieve, learning how to swim and enjoying the water.”
Piper’s efforts, which have earned awards including Griffith’s NAIDOC Community Award, the Proud and Deadly Cultural Award and a Community Recognition Statement read out in NSW Parliament, have helped Bambigi to expand. The program now works with a pre-school, primary schools and Tirkandi Inaburra Cultural and Development Centre, in nearby Coleambally, paying for teenage boys to take part in a water safety course.
Last month, Piper’s passion to teach kids to swim evolved further when she qualified to become a swimming instructor.
Raising money for Bambigi was virtually impossible during 2020 due to pandemic restrictions but the Stewarts hope to hold more fundraising events this year.
“At some stage in our lives we all need help from different people and different agencies,” says Allison. “And helping out in any way possible makes the community a better place to live in.
“This is just one little thing that we're doing to help the Griffith and surrounding communities.”