Michele offers a human touch in times of crisis
MICHELE Lipner can clearly remember when she first became hooked on adventure.
It was 1991 and with a brand new degree in sociology under her belt, she had travelled from her home in Columbia, Missouri, to Ethiopia as part of a program helping the country's cattle, sheep and goat producers.
Ethiopia was engulfed in a civil war and within a month of Michele's arrival, tanks were rolling into Addis Ababa as the long-time Marxist regime and its massive army was overthrown.
"I remember calling my mother because she thought I had evacuated to Kenya during all of this," Michele recalls.
"It's probably the wrong thing to say to your mother but I rang her and said 'If anything happens to me it's okay because it's the first time in my life I feel like I'm alive and living'."
She stayed in the troubled country for 12 months but the experience had ignited a passion for humanitarian work that continues to this day.
Now living in suburban Peregian Springs, Michele's days of international humanitarian work are behind her and her energy is focused on a local program distributing excess food to people in need.
It's a far cry from post-conflict Kosovo and Afghanistan where she found herself over the 15 years following her time in Ethiopia.
First was a posting to the Republic of Georgia, after the break-up of the former Soviet Union, where she helped run post-conflict recovery programs, particularly focusing on training local doctors and health care professionals.
After Armenia, came Kosovo, where she ran a $20 million assistance program for US AID and helped deal with ethnic conflicts.
Nine months after the 9/11 bombings stunned the world, she was posted to northern Afghanistan where she was the UN's representative in a region where local warlords were often in conflict with one another.
"I was one of the regional coordinators of the UN missions in Afghanistan - one of eight working there from 2002-2004 - after the US bombings," she explains.
"The UN has this peace-keeping mechanism. It's not just about blue helmets - it's a whole civilian side of peace-keeping as well where you come in with a group of specialists and generalists.
"It's a whole program that works in concert with the government to help move countries coming out of conflict into peace and stability - economic and social stability.
"These peace-keeping missions are usually a combination of civilian and military personnel who go into countries when conflicts are ending.
"I was the head of one of the regional offices and there to support the overall mission in Afghanistan, in the northern part of the country."
It was while she was in Afghanistan that she met her future husband, Lt Colonel Chris Mead.
The UN mission had eight international military advisers to advise on military issues and Chris was deployed as Australia's sole military presence in Afghanistan.
"There were no official UN troops on the ground at the time; he was seconded to the UN Mission by the Australian Government. He wore the Australian Army uniform and a blue beret denoting his role as a UN advisor," Michele explains.
"We were having a lot of trouble with the warlords - people were getting killed and we were getting caught in the crossfire - so he was one of two military advisers deployed up there to try to help negotiate local peace settlements with the warlords and help deal with all the fighting."
Michele and Chris fell in love and in late 2004 she moved to Australia to be with him in Canberra.
But she didn't stay still for long.
Soon after her arrival, the Boxing Day tsunami hit, killing more than 230,000 people in 14 countries.
Within months, Michele was in Indonesia's Aceh Province with the UN, as its role moved from emergency relief to humanitarian work.
It was only a four-month deployment but within a matter of weeks she had another life-changing experience when the region was hit by a second major quake.
"Many people don't even remember the second quake happened," she says.
"The first quake that caused the tsunami was a 9.7, which is unheard of.
"The second one, in March, was about an 8.3 and I was in the middle of that.
"I'm from California and I thought when I went to Aceh Province that I knew all about earthquakes ... then I got caught up in an 8-plus earthquake and it was terrifying.
"I felt pretty overwhelmed, to the point where I was pretty traumatised. I had never done emergency response.
"I would go to sleep with clothes on and a glass of water beside the bed because I would wake up in the middle of the night not knowing if I was moving or if the room was moving and the only way I could tell was if I looked at the water in the glass.
"I've often said since then 'give me warlords any day over a natural disaster' - you can negotiate with a warlord but you can't with nature."
Michele returned to Canberra and Chris but soon realised she was suffering post traumatic stress.
In her words she eventually "got over it", but the experience made her question her abilities for the first time.
"Up to that point I think that everything I did, I did intuitively and I grew and I learned and I got better.
"Now the whole international aid and development is focused on training people in advance and giving them the necessary skills but when I started in the early 90s - I started out in international aid and development as a country coordinator for Save The Children - I grew as I went along doing all these type of things.
"So I had a lot of self doubt and I still have a lot of self doubt - I should have done this more and I should have done that.
"But I am proud that I can reflect on moments that I know I made a difference.
"And if I know I made a difference in one person's life, it's worth it."
There are moments which stand out in Michele's mind but none more so than an experience during her second posting in the Republic of Georgia.
She was working for OCHA - a United Nations body that helps coordinate the activities between the UN agencies and among the UN agencies and non-government agencies such as Save The Children and World Vision during a humanitarian crisis.
She often had Georgians come to her for help but one woman in particular has stuck in her mind.
"She'd been standing in line to see Minister of Health and when she came to see me she told me the story of her son," Michele recalls.
"He was 16 or 17 years old and was suffering from what was probably terminal cancer but she couldn't get him any support because he wasn't a child and he wasn't an adult.
"She came to me to see if I could direct her to an agency to help her.
"I said 'why did you come to me?'.
"She told me that she was standing in line to see the Minister of Health and she was talking to someone in front of her and explaining why she was there.
"They said 'don't stand in the line - go and talk to this woman because if anybody can help you, she can'.
"That tells me I must have done something right."
After returning to Australia, Michele took on some consultancy work and coordinated the formulation of a document which detailed best practice for civilian and military personnel working side-by-side in conflict areas and emergencies overseas.
"Same Space, Different Mandates", which she describes as her "proudest achievement", is now recognised as a definitive guide to best practice and is taken into the field by personnel - both military and civilian.
Michele and Chris moved to the Sunshine Coast in 2010 and with Chris continuing to work for the army and her most recent consultancy nearing an end, Michele looked for a new challenge.
She'd heard of an organisation called OzHarvest - a national food rescue project which distributes excess food to the needy.
It's regional arm is called REAP and it's into that organisation Michele has directed her passion for making a difference in the world.
"We rescue excess good food that might otherwise go to landfill for any number of reasons - excess, not being able to be sold because of overstocking, seconds and sometimes just because they don't look good," she explains.
"The reality is that a lot of the public is used to buying fruit and vegetables that look a certain way and if something doesn't look that way it is visually unappealing and therefore there is a notion the food is not good or won't taste as good.
"So it is really hard for businesses to sell those products.
"I have a picture on my phone of a bent banana, that looks like a V.
"Most people think of a banana as being shaped like a banana and so if you see something that doesn't look like the product, it is far harder to sell.
"If you have big tomatoes that have big indentations in them or slight bruising - they are still very good, still very tasty but it's not something an average person would necessarily think as of quality, compared to what they might buy in the stores.
"Both at the farm levels and at the supermarket level, a lot of those products tend to be thrown away.
"The whole idea of OzHarvest and REAP is to rescue that food before it can get to landfill and redistribute it to local community organisations - schools charities, various programs - who are providing meals or emergency hampers to vulnerable people.
"So we are accomplishing two things at once - keeping food away from landfill and also helping with a social problem which is the fact a lot people out there are hungry and rely on social services for food relief."
Much of the fruit and vegetables come from the Noosa Farmers Market and Fisherman's Road Market in Maroochydore - usually around 300kg a week and sometimes double that.
The organisation also receive a significant amount of excess good fruit and vegetables from Woolworths supermarket at Sunshine Plaza and Jeffers in Maroochydore.
"The stallholders in the farmer's markets are just heroes," Michele says.
"They've told us they give food because they say 'we know what it means to struggle and have nothing' so they are very generous with their excess."
But it's not just fruit and veges that are distributed. There's also meat, bakery items and tinned foods - anything that can be used to feed hungry people.
In just two years, 50,000kg of excess food has been donated to REAP locally.
With every kilogram of food creating three meals, even Michele acknowledges the achievement has been "remarkable".
While food rescue is the cornerstone of the program, there are also advocacy and educational components - engaging with the community to help minimise food waste and support food security and sustainability in the area.
It's an area in which Michele is becoming more involved these days.
"When I first started the program two years go - in August 2014 - my focus was almost exclusively on identifying food suppliers and recipients and being able to provide a sufficient amount of food to be able to make a critical difference," she says.
"To give a banana to an organisation means nothing but if I can give 30 or 40 or 50 kilos of food to an organisation then there is some security in them being able to provide some quality consistently to people who are in need.
"I started small - mostly in the Noosa and Tewantin area - and then started to move towards Coolum, Maroochydore, Nambour - ultimately with the aim of going Sunshine Coast-wide.
"But in the last few months I've slowly started to look more in terms of education and advocacy.
"I go to the Noosa Farmer's Markets every Sunday with my little table and my signs and I have hand-outs for people about how households can minimise food waste.
"I talk about the program and about what household members can do.
"I have flyers with household tips on how individuals can minimise waste at home.
"I will, in time, be looking to try and develop programs with schools - working with kids about minimising food waste and maximising household food - buying smartly; eating smartly."
Then there are the fundraising education programs.
One called Cooking For a Cause is partly a team-building exercise for local businesses, with people attending a cooking demonstration with REAP volunteer cooks - sometimes celebrity chefs - and then making meals out of rescued food.
Michele has also invited local schools to run pantry drives to collect excess food while Noosa Civic recently became the first shopping centre on the Coast to have a "community pantry", where shoppers can leave excess food or make donations to REAP straight from their trolleys.
There are even plans to target holiday rentals, where people often have foodstuffs left over at the end of their holiday.
A team of 22 volunteers collects the donations, which are then distributed through 18 organisations, including several schools where students are given fresh fruit and, in some cases, a hearty breakfast.
The Salvation Army uses REAP donations in emergency relief hampers while organisations such as Maroochy Neighbourhood Centre cook meals for the underprivileged.
Michele is quick to point out she's not trying to make people dependent on hand-outs but sees free meals as "enablers".
"Food is the trigger that helps bring people to these organisations so that all of the other services these organisations can provide can kick in.
"It becomes a place where the homeless can talk about what their needs are - their safety, their security, their mental state - and where they can feel like they are part of the community and not isolated.
"So I think it's important to not just focus on the food but what the food enables these organisations to do, which is far more significant and important for the people they serve.
"There are still a lot of empty stomachs but it brings these people in.
"I was told by one charity that the food brings the people in so they can counsel them and direct them to services that may actually be able to further help them in multiple ways
"So, put that way, we are much more than just a food rescue program."
While she says she loves her new role, Michele also admits she misses the humanitarian work of her past.
"It was the first time in my adult life that I found I felt passionate about what I was doing ...
"I have been to all of these countries ... I've got to meet some incredible people.
"I've had some amazing experiences and I feel very, very, very blessed ...
"It wasn't a nine-to-five job - you worked 24/7. You worked hard and you played hard and I was passionate about it.
"So, of course, I crave that. But I'm too old for it now.
"It took me until about six months ago before I finally said 'move on'."
If you would like to help REAP Sunshine Coast, either as a volunteer or supplier, call Michele on 0406-085747, email her at email@example.com or visit the website www.ozharvest.org/reap/chapters/sunshine-coast/