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It’s said that from little things, big things grow, and it’s this concept Sarah Donnelley uses for the title of her memoir about the experience of teaching on Country. It was in the troubled and complex remote outback town of Wilcannia that the author found the capacity for understanding and connection to transform lives is a two-way street.

Anyone familiar with Wilcannia will know the tiny blip on the remote western NSW map has a rich and ancient past, a troubled present and an uncertain future. For as long as most can remember, the town and its mostly Indigenous inhabitants have been known almost entirely for a life marked by dysfunction and generational disadvantage. Scratch the surface, though, and this is also a small town with a big, if complex, heart.

Donnelley didn’t just scratch that surface: she took the proverbial shovel and dug down well below the veneer of Wilcannia’s complicated community, where she struck personal and professional gold.

Big Things Grow is the memoir of a young woman who leaves a cushy teaching position and the leafy, affluent Eastern Suburbs of Sydney for the far reaches of the state’s outback, to take on one of the most challenging pedagogical roles imaginable.

With unfettered but compassionate candour, Donnelley takes her readers on a hike down dusty outback trails of discovery, not only about the ancient Barkandji culture and the complexities of a community fraught with generational trauma, but also about herself, her teaching practice and the power of listening.

She recounts the highs and lows of learning to find her place in both the classroom and the unfamiliar community, often with humour, but always with great respect and consideration. And she challenges misconceptions not only about Wilcannia, but also about other remote and ostensibly turbulent Indigenous communities.

From the 31-year-old author’s first encounter with a giant grey kangaroo to winning the 2020 ARIA Music Teacher of the Year Award, and the challenges of teaching through COVID-19 during Wilcannia’s well publicised outbreak, this account will leave her readers fascinated, moved and inspired.

In a way, Big Things Grow is a love story – the story of how one young woman grew to love the seemingly impenetrable community of Wilcannia, and how it in turn embraced her and grew to love her back. It’s about the capacity of love and learning to help heal and unite, and about how a deep connection can be forged from a simple leap of faith: from little things, big things grow.

Royalties from Big Things Grow are reinvested in the community through the Wilcannia Youth Foundation.