Montrose Giving Tree

“Share a time when you felt really proud to live in Montrose”

Cormac Russell presented this invitation three years ago to a room of 40 people gathered to talk about ways to improve our town.  This simple invitation shifted the attention in the room and began a path towards celebrating and building on what is strong in our community.

Montrose is a small town of under 8,000 people in the outskirts of Melbourne, Australia. It’s nestled on the foot of a small mountain range, and is surrounded by native bushland. It’s also on the fringe of industrial and surburban areas, with a major arterial running through the middle of it.

For decades a roundabout has enabled traffic to move relatively smoothly through town, but government funding had been allocated to remove the roundabout, widen the road and place stop lights in this intersection. There was no community consultation conducted before the decision was made and many people were angry and scared about what this change would do to our town. It had become the focus in our community and was increasingly difficult to discuss anything else.

Our three-hour session with Cormac helped to change that. He gave us the space to discuss it at the beginning, enabling people to share their frustrations and concerns. But once this short time was given, he invited us to do something different – to focus on what was strong about Montrose, instead of what was wrong – and explore ways we can build on the assets we already have in our community.

As we shared our stories with each other, a clear theme emerged – we all felt our community was at its best when we cared for and looked after each other. So many diverse examples emerged from our stories, and we began to explore how we might build on these to help our community thrive.

This meeting was the start of an engagement process to develop a vision and plan for our community. It was led by Montrose Township Group, which is composed of local volunteers keen to contribute to our community. After a couple more years of conversations, action, and more conversations, a vision emerged: To be a community where the people who live, work or play here care about and support each other, our place and our environment.

Over the last three years, we’ve experienced a slow and steady shift towards building on our strengths and celebrating the stories that build on the culture of care and support we want in our town. And just like many others around the world, we’ve done this facing enormous challenges of pandemics, government-mandated lockdowns, economic and social uncertainty and fierce storms which left our community without power for days and many houses damaged or destroyed. It hasn’t been an easy time for any of us, and yet we’ve still been able to maintain a focus on building and celebrating connection, relationships, and community contribution.

The ‘birth’ of the Montrose Giving Tree is a great example of this. It’s a little tree that sits outside our local bakery and in the early days of the pandemic, a generous local made masks and hung them in the tree for people to use if they needed them. Then more masks started appearing in the tree, as well as herbs, lemons, seeds and other handmade goods. Today, the tree has a homemade bunting, plenty of pegs on its little limbs and two permanent wooden boxes where gifts can be left, all made by locals. People continually share their abundance with others, whether it be lemons, books, homemade teddy bears, lollipops, bubbles, flowers, and even handwritten notes of positivity.

These are gifts given by the community, and they boost our spirits and inspire others to contribute too – whether that’s through sharing a smile, an offer to help, or a gift they can give to others.

One comment made by a local recently sums up a feeling that more of us are experiencing these days: “I have never known such a caring and friendly neighbourhood as Montrose. I am one of the Lucky Ones.”

This caring and friendliness always existed in Montrose. I’ve heard examples of it from people who have lived here for far longer than I have. And I believe every community has stories of care and support they can share. What helped us grow this to a feeling we collectively share for our town today is that we are focussing our attention on what we want to grow and nurture – the culture of care, support and contribution. And we can all contribute to that – because as we say here in Montrose, if we all do a little, it helps a whole lot.

So thank you Cormac. Thanks for helping us re-center our attention to build on what is strong in our town. Montrose is a wonderful place to live, and I’m proud to call it home!

Chelsey Cooper, Montrose Township Group

Montrose, Australia

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