“Why can’t you teach this program from a caravan?”
It was 1980 – the decade that spurred big hair, shoulder pads, Cabbage Patch Dolls and Rubik’s cubes. And, as it happened, the iconic Life Education van.
Judy Saunders had no idea that her simple question directed to the Reverend Ted Noffs during a dinner at the annual Tweed Banana Festival in the quiet town of Murwillumbah would later spark a worldwide phenomenon.
Ted Noffs had started teaching children drug and health education from the Wayside Chapel in Sydney in 1979 after witnessing the devastation of the drug culture on the young people of Kings Cross. He had come to Northern New South Wales to spread the word about his program.
Judy was impressed by his speech but couldn’t see how they could afford to run their own centre in the Tweed so came up with the concept of a caravan fitted out with equipment that moved around from school to school.
In 1981 a small committee was formed – the Life Education Unit working committee – which set about fundraising for a van.
Chair of the committee and then Tweed Shire Council President Max Boyd approached Lend Lease, which was working on a project in the area, and they agreed to donate funds for the caravan.
Max had lost his right leg as a result of Buerger’s Disease and smoking and was determined to get the scheme off the ground so kids in his local area would understand the dangers of drugs and alcohol.
Now, almost 40 years later, children in countries including Australia, New Zealand, England, and even Barbados access health and safety lessons delivered via a giraffe in the back of a darkened van known as a ‘Life Education Mobile Learning Centre’, or MLC for short.
In Australia today, there are more than 95 mobile classrooms delivering health education to over 660,000 children each year in every state and territory.
They say it takes a village to raise a child and it certainly took a group of dedicated locals to get Life Education up and running in the Tweed area.
But there is one hero in this story that deserves a mention.
Tom Grimes was a local Rotarian back in the 80s when he’d heard about Life Education. Ever the man for a good cause Tom got involved with the Life Education Unit , towing the MLC to schools from the Tweed to Stokers Siding and later, taking over as chair of the committee.
His enthusiasm took him and the van on trips into Queensland around Rockhampton, Toowoomba, and the Gold Coast, promoting the concept. It was to be the beginning of Life Education Queensland.
Tom has since retired and is now a spritely 95 (he spent his last birthday jumping out of a plane …) but he feels his work is far from finished.
After recently discovering the van that he drove for almost 10 years – the very first MLC – rusting away in a paddock in Sydney, Tom has set to work restoring it so it can act as a museum for Healthy Harold.
Once again in its former home in the Tweed, Tom – with the support of the Kingscliff Rotary Club – is painstakingly replacing the wood panelling on the walls, fixing the lights in the ceiling, recarpeting the floor, and touching up the paint.
The van is roadworthy and registered and the local community has rallied together to raise $10,000 to restore it to its former glory.
But it’s a slow-going process that entails fixing specialised mechanics including an anatomical body model and a giraffe that comes out of the wall to teach kids about the dangers of drugs - originally built by Aussie electronics legend Dick Smith.
For Tom, it would be a dream realised: “It’s the first caravan in the world to start this program. Big kids in their 30s now remember Healthy Harold,” he says, and he’s hoping he’ll be around to see it finished.
For the seven million Aussies who have been through the program, it’s an iconic part of Australian history.
And while it may not have the stature of an emergency vehicle, in its own way, the locals reckon the Tweed MLC has saved its share of lives.