As the COVID-19 pandemic reached a crescendo in 2020, Donny McKenzie and his wife Roxanne Lawrie were busy doing what they have always done.

Over a hot vat in their two-bedroom bungalow, the pair stirred kangaroo bolognaise and kneaded dough to bake industrial quantities of damper.

Every few days, the duo cooks and delivers meals to those around town who have fallen on hard times, paid for out of their own pocket.

Roxanne Lawrie says she feeds people because it is the right thing to do.(ABC: Gabriella Marchant)

Asked why, Ms Lawrie said she was raised that way.

“When I feed them, I do feel tired, but I feel better with myself.”

Little did the pair know there would soon be plenty more hungry mouths to feed.

Many people who became trapped in Port Augusta without income or housing were grateful for the food deliveries.(ABC: Gabriella Marchant)

Cooinda, a meeting place

In the Barngarla language, their home, the South Australian city of Port Augusta is known as Cooinda or “meeting place”.

Nestled at the uppermost part of the state’s sweeping Spencer Gulf, Indigenous nations from every corner have met there for tens of thousands of years.

It is a custom that lives on today, with many from the red centre regularly heading south to shop, relax and visit family.

So in March, when coronavirus hit Australia and remote communities swiftly locked down, the city felt it keenly.

Overnight, hundreds of visitors were trapped where the ocean meets the outback.

Port Augusta is often called the “crossroads of Australia”.(ABC: Gabriella Marchant)

“People were trying to get home as quickly as possible, back to the communities and they were shut out, they were left in the middle,” Kokatha leader Glen Wingfield remembered.

Sharina Jackson had been visiting from Alice Springs, and though she had family to stay with, many did not.

“They’ve got no house, they’ve got a tent, they’ve got no help, nowhere to stay,” Ms Jackson said.

Sharina Jackson has been in Port Augusta, down from communities further north, for around a year.(ABC: Gabriella Marchant)

Virus could take cultural knowledge

Compounding things, the city’s own Aboriginal community, Davenport, also entered hard lockdown to protect vulnerable elders.

Glen Wingfield said it was a no-brainer.

“We haven’t got too many of our elders left, and if the virus was to get into our communities up north, it would have devastated them, and it would have taken out a lot of knowledge,” he said.

The combination of vulnerable locals and out-of-towners fermented into a crisis, prompting collaboration between three of the region’s Indigenous nations — the Kokatha, Barngarla and Kuyani.

Donny McKenzie’s dad Donald, who is a dialysis patient, was one of the many who had food delivered during the pandemic.(ABC: Gabriella Marchant.)

Though their solution would eventually keep local businesses afloat — and win awards — while assisting more than 1,200 people, collaborator and Kuyani leader Lavene Ngatokorua said none of that was at the forefront of their minds.

“The people involved have family members they love, so they go into the program with love,” Ms Ngatokorua said.

“They love that person they’re working for so much that they want to see them survive this.

“I don’t want to go to the cemetery and say, ‘we shoulda done this, we shoulda, coulda, woulda’.”

Kuyani woman Lavene Ngatokorua says the community is motivated by the love for their families and a desire to protect them.(ABC: Gabriella Marchant)

Protect Our People

The program they developed, named Protect Our People (POP), evolved as demands ebbed and flowed.

Funded with an emergency grant raised through Native Title negotiations with mining giant BHP, it was administered entirely by leaders from the local groups.

Barngarla leader Linda Dare said the first phase of the program provided an on-country camp where those who were stuck could safely quarantine before returning home.

By the time communities re-opened, the facility had helped around 250 people quarantine and travel back, predominantly to the APY Lands, around 900 kilometres north.

‘I wouldn’t have been able to survive’

Meanwhile vulnerable locals, like 63-year-old Adnyamathanha woman and dialysis patient Reverend Doctor Denise Warrikanha Champion, were not forgotten.

Reverend Doctor Denise Warrikanha Champion was helped by the POP program.(ABC: Gabriella Marchant)

The program delivered her and thousands of others regular food, hygiene and goods, so they could stay safe at home.

“Being Aboriginal, being on dialysis, being elderly, it put me in that high-risk category,” she said.

“Because I don’t drive, I was pretty dependent on people.

“There was a meat hamper, there were things like rugs, quilts, and pillows — it wasn’t just food, there was cleaning equipment.

“Without that I wouldn’t have been able to survive through that period of time.”

More than $250,000 spent, businesses kept afloat

While protecting the community, POP collaborator David Kelly said the program injected more than a quarter of a million dollars into the local economy.

Kuyani leader Lavene Ngatokorua said the decision to buy local was deliberate.

“It was important that we supported local business through what was a really difficult time,” she said.

“As Aboriginal people, they are important to us, just as we are important to them.”

For Flavio Parnanzini, owner of family-run Emma’s Deli, the cash injection helped them not just survive the pandemic, but hire three junior staff.

Flavio and Grazia Parnanzini were able to hire people during the pandemic because of the extra payments.(ABC: Gabriella Marchant)

The orders were large.

“We did do a very heavily discounted price for them just because of the amount of food they were purchasing,” Mr Parnanzini said.

“It gave us the opportunity to employ during the pandemic, which was pretty rare I think, in the current circumstances.”

‘The people who just do it’

It also meant for the first time Roxanne Lawrie and Donny McKenzie were paid money for the food they had been preparing anyway.

“POP started helping us with the feed,” Ms Lawrie said.

“When we need more kangaroo meat, we got a little credit now, credit at the Emma’s [Deli], so when we need them, I just let them know and pick it up.”

Kokatha leader Glen Wingfield and Barngarla leader Linda Dare worked together to deliver the POP program.(ABC: Gabriella Marchant.)

Kokatha co-leader Glen Wingfield said he believed it was the commitment of the army of local volunteers like the couple, which were the heart of the operation.

“Without those guys, it certainly wouldn’t have worked,” Mr Wingfield said.

He said the program was a great example of Indigenous self-determination.

“Aboriginal people know what Aboriginal people’s needs are,” Mr Wingfield said.

“People just spring into action.

“It goes to show Aboriginal people are still transient like they were many years ago.