Peak performance – Kurrajong Heights' Mountain of Joy delivers
When Kurrajong Heights local Karen Stuttle was rushed to hospital by her husband two years ago after a case of flu suddenly became deadly serious, she didn’t realise it would be a turning point in her life.
Karen Stuttle with some of the fresh produce offered through Mountain of Joy
Out of that emergency dash came a realisation – lots of people out there don’t have the support she had.
“I’m one of these very lucky people who have others to take care of me and I have parents round the corner and I just thought there are people who don’t have people to help,” Karen says.
“I’m not really sure why these instincts came out, but I just knew in my heart there are many people in our community, whether they be elderly, single mums, single people, people on their own, who do need a helping hand, Maybe not all the time, but certainly when disaster strikes.”
And out of this came Mountain of Joy, which started as a meal preparation service for those in need, to a much bigger operation which sees Karen and key volunteers Irene Pridham and Bilpin’s Penny McKinlay help those who need assistance when they need it with strategically placed fridges and stalls full of food.
“It started when we decided to do meal prepping similar to Meals on Wheels and we would just do that once a month and store 100 meals, so when someone was going through a rough patch we could just grab them,” said Karen who is a fulltime teacher.
“But I’m also an ex-chef, so I was determined the meals were going to be very nutritious. We did our first cook-up and made 47 lasagnes and put spinach through them and that just made a very wholesome lasagne. Then we froze them. Within a month after that first cook-up we’d given them out. Then it became apparent, once we put the word out, there was a real need out there.”
Since them Karen and her volunteers and colleagues have produced in excess of 2000 frozen meals. But it was just the beginning - the Mountain of Joy service expanded.
“If a family had a child rushed to hospital they needed help so we would go and get them nappies. We had people from Glossodia going through chemo who needed help. We said we covered Kurrajong Heights but we couldn’t say no – we have gone everywhere, as far as Penrith,” said Karen.
One of the most challenging periods came with the bushfires, which saw an RFS staging area at Bilpin home to fire fighting teams from all over Sydney.
“We ended up having firies directly contacting us and they were out there on the trucks and eating sausages on bread and falling in a heap and having a shower and having a sleep and then getting up and doing it all again tomorrow on pretty much an empty stomach. So we just started delivering food directly to the firies’ homes and leaving it in their freezers. And then we organised a freezer for Kurrajong Heights RFS. So we would meal prep and stuff the freezer full of food, so when they got off the truck at night they could grab some food and take it to their families.
“We connected with a group called Firey Fairies. We realised many firies, particularly the women, were not able to clean their houses, to do any washing, or do anything for their children, so Firey Fairies combined with us and we went in and cleaned firies’ houses and put a dinner on the table and then we’d turn round two days later and just do that on repeat.
“It was a ridiculous time, and in some regards very traumatic. I have to say I’m very level headed but for months and months afterwards if I saw a pile burn in winter, my mind would flip and I’d say it’s okay, it’s okay. It’s seeing smoke, it triggers people, so we had to be positive all the time.”
The fires eventually came to an end, but then Covid came along.
“It has been terrible,” says Karen, “but in some ways - the way some of us view it - it has been an incredible opportunity to form new relationships in the community. We’ve had two evacuations now but that watch and wait moment, that strange time which brings us very close for about three days, but then sees people go back into their little worlds, that has happened this time but people haven’t gone back into their little worlds.
“They’ve stayed open minded and helping. This whole scenario now, and I see this, is everyone is alert to how people are doing and ready to help.”
And so Mountain of Joy has become a mainstay for many, and many people are supporting it too.
“For the first year my husband Brad and I just funded it. Now, over the last year, people randomly, anonymously, just drop cash in. There are some people in Port Macquarie who used to live in Bilpin, they decided to take a bucket around in Port Macquarie and have the money sent down.
“Hawkesbury Helping Hands and Hawkesbury Community Outreach also help out in a big way - dropping food off regularly,” says Karen.
Linda Strickland, who started the hard-working Hawkesbury Helping Hands, turned up one day with a van packed full of food for people up at Bilpin and the Heights, and now HHH delivers every week.
What is often forgotten when people go above and beyond to help those less fortunate than themselves is the pressure on them too. We asked Karen how she coped.
“I get joy from helping. It’s not a burden. But a month ago I did crash. I literally got up for one hour and then went back to bed for 12 hours. When you drop off a meal you might have to allow 45 mins for that person to have a cry or just a talk, so you’ve got to feel you’ve got support. So now and again if I need a bit of a weekend break mentally, I can get it, and one of my volunteers will do a pick-up.
“End of the day you do it because you love doing it. We have elderly folks now who know who to call if they get in strife and that for me is what a community should be. I think we used to be like that in the 1980s when people used to have a chat over the back fence and I think we are beginning to get back to that.”