Breakfast at the Crossroads

Jo FulwoodThe West Australian

It is 6am on a chilly winter's day and Nokaning local Mal Willis is firing up his barbecue at a dusty crossroads in what many might call the middle of nowhere.

But soon farm utes begin to rattle down the gravel roads, coming from all four directions.

By the time the sun has fully risen, 15 men are gathered on the side of the road eating their sausages and, most importantly, chatting to their neighbours and mates.

This ritual happens once a month, and for some of these men, it could be a life-changing experience.

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Mr Willis, who started the barbecue at the Smith Road intersection four years ago, is something of an eastern Wheatbelt icon.

His first Crossroads barbecue was held at Nokaning, halfway between Nungarin and Merredin, almost three years ago.

"A few mates and I would get together and pray for rain and our community and that was good, but we wanted to do something more for our neighbours in a practical way," he said.

"We don't seem to see our neighbours much because we are all so busy, so we thought we would start an early breakfast. That way we could all have a chat and help each other to get through those tough times.

"So we rang around a few locals and 20 blokes rocked up to our first breakfast."

These days, Crossroads barbecues are held in six locations across the eastern Wheatbelt.

Each week, Mr Willis is somewhere different with his trailer barbecue, and the breakfasts, which he funds himself and through donations, are renowned.

"I did Nungarin this morning and we also do Kodji-Kodjin, which is north of Doodlakine. We run one at South Burracoppin and Muntadgin, and I know Mt Walker has started their own up," he said.

Regional Men's Health senior community educator Owen Catto says Mr Willis has a winning recipe with his Crossroads breakfasts.

"When you explain to people that it's at the crossroads in the middle of nowhere, people don't believe that. There is nothing there, other than some crossroads," he said.

"But these barbecues are really important to these communities now.

"They are an independent forum, they don't include alcohol or sport, there is no formal seating in an auditorium, and blokes feel safe to go and have a chat over breakfast."

Mr Catto said men communicated their problems differently than women. "Blokes have a propensity to think that they are alone, whether it be an issue with a relationship, finances or if it's seasonally related," he said.

"But as soon as they have a chat, they realise they might be in the same situation as their neighbour, and their neighbour's neighbour, and it normalises their own situation, and that's so important."

Mr Catto said there were three key differences in the way men communicated.

"Firstly, we talk less, we talk in dot points, and we don't talk in an emotional context," he said.

"We are also hard-wired for risk-taking. What may be deemed a risk for females is not deemed a risk for young blokes. But probably most important is our attitude and response to winning."

Mr Catto said research showed 90 per cent of men believed winning was important, and 50 per cent believed winning was the most important thing in their life.

"So it makes it harder in their own mind to put their hand up and seek help, because that is still, in this day and age, seen as a weakness, and at the core of masculinity, and we need to talk about this more," he said.

But for Mr Willis, who is also a Merredin Shire councillor, the barbecues are not just a community service.

"I've struggled in the past with mental health problems, and it's certainly helped me to connect with others," he said.

"We all have our down times, and this breakfast can just get guys through a tough week before the situation gets bigger and out of hand.

"If you go to a breakfast and your crop looks shocking and there is no rain on the horizon, you can chat to a neighbour, you can see that you aren't in this alone, you can feel its not something that you have done, its just circumstances that are conspiring against you.

"I know there are other places around the State where guys are getting together for this sort of thing but I would love to see it happening right across the Wheatbelt, and I'd love to chat to anyone who would like to do this in their community."

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