When Kawarren lost its school, locals feared they were losing the heartbeat of the community.

With nowhere to meet, the once close-knit farming community in the Otway Ranges south of Colac was at risk of splintering.

But the residents weren’t about to let that happen.

Instead, they lobbied the Education Department to take over the school site, known as Echidna House, and they established a local volunteer committee of management for the surrounding crown land Kawarren Reserve.

The school opened in 1921 and was closed in 2008. Today it’s restored beyond its former glory and remains a beacon for the community on the three-hectare reserve.

With no ongoing funding, the committee relies on volunteers, fund-raising and grants, including $5000 from the Gardiner Dairy Foundation Community Grants Program in partnership with the Foundation for Rural & Regional Renewal.

Former committee president Neville Towers says there are about 200 people in the area and they needed a focal point.

“When we lost the school, we lost our community,” he said. “There was nowhere for people to meet. Some don’t like to meet in other people’s houses and the fire brigade was only a little tin shed so we had nowhere to go.

“Once the school went, we really noticed it but we talked to the community and started lobbying and brought the community with us to make it into our community centre.”

Getting control of the site wasn’t easy but the seven-year campaign continues to pay dividends.

“We sandblasted all the walls of the school and took it back to the pine lining, it’s got the blackboard, old lights and fans and a couple of old school desks,” Neville said.

“It’s magnificent and people love to reminisce.”

The Gardiner Community Grants funding was used to replace broken glass and provide shade over the deck area so parents can watch their children in the adjoining playground.

“The deck was the last thing we put on. It made the building – before that it was two old portables stuck together and they didn’t look very pretty,” Neville said.

Before the pandemic, the school and reserve were used about three times a week for everything from playgroups, yoga classes and a nature group to weddings, regular markets and an annual Christmas party.

“It has been really tough for the last two years; we had to virtually close it down,” Neville said.

“It’s just starting to open up now. We’re looking to reintroduce markets four times a year and we hope people can camp there as another revenue option to help maintain the site.” People can visit the Kawarren Echidna House website to make bookings and see what events are coming up.

Neville said the annual Christmas party was a great way to integrate the community. “We invite everyone and if you didn’t have those, you wouldn’t know who had moved in to the area,” he said. “The reason we renovated it was to get that community connection.

“If it wasn’t for grants, we wouldn’t have been able to do what we’ve done. By the time the Education Department handed over the old school, it was run down and vandalised.”

Neville was committee of management president for 13 years before recently handing over the reins to a new generation of volunteers.

“We have a really good young committee and wanted the younger ones to take it their way,” he said.

“You’ve got to have good volunteers; that’s the key. Grant applications won’t get written up and the work won’t get done if you don’t have good volunteers, and if we didn’t have the money for materials, we wouldn’t have those volunteers. The grants inspire the volunteers to keep going.”

The Gardiner Community Grant also qualified as income and helped the committee to provide matching funding for the initial government grant to restore the school buildings.

The vision for the site remains the same – increasing use of the building and grounds so it makes an income while providing a central gathering spot for local residents.

Neville said the support from Gardiner and other funders gives the community heart.

“It’s a beautiful spot but there’s no good having the place there not being used.”

Now in its 20th year, the Gardiner Dairy Foundation Community Grants Program is delivered by the Foundation for Rural & Regional Renewal (FRRR). Grants of up to $5,000 will help not-for-profit organisations in small Victorian dairy communities deliver projects that will benefit local people and strengthen their ability to deal with local issues and enhance existing community infrastructure.

Applications for the 2022 program are now open and close April 14 and can be found at https://www.gardinerfoundation.com.au/communitygrants/