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Author: Natasha Cantwell

Communications & Public Programming Officer

In 1979, a group of visionaries within Ballarat’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community formed a co-op that would not only look after the welfare of local people but also drive positive change for generations to come. With mainstream organisations not providing the services they needed and Aboriginal people facing racism and discrimination when seeking medical care, education or employment, the co-op filled an urgent need. Forty-three years later, this grass roots organisation, the Ballarat and District Aboriginal Co-operative (BADAC), has become the beating heart of a thriving community. BADAC now employs 166 staff and delivers a wide range of health, social, welfare and community development programs. To celebrate this achievement, BADAC, with the help of a Local History Grant from Public Record Office Victoria, created the website BADAC Stories. I talked with some of the people involved in this significant oral history project.

Screenshot of website for BADAC Stories
Home page for the BADAC Stories website


Project Manager, Maryanne Ross has a background as a historical fiction writer and originally envisioned BADAC Stories as an e-book. However, as the team started conducting interviews, Maryanne quickly realised that “these important stories should be told directly by the Elders and BADAC community, rather than filtered through my words and perceptions. Even in the twenty-first century, the oral tradition is still really strong. The Elders are fantastic storytellers. They didn’t prepare anything, or have any notes, they just talked freely.” And so, while BADAC Stories includes text and archival newspaper articles, it is the series of video interviews that are the main focus of the website.

Listening to the Elders talk honestly about their lives was a powerful experience for Maryanne, especially hearing about the childhoods of the Stolen Generations. From the 1880s to 1980s, Ballarat’s five orphanages received many Aboriginal children from across Australia who had been forcibly removed from Country. A third of those children lost all contact with their families and trans-generational trauma still impacts the community today.

“It was an honour and a privilege to sit in on the interviews. It was confronting and heartbreaking, but despite what had happened, they still managed to achieve incredible things. I cried in every single one of them. There were tears of grief, but also happiness, hearing their beautiful stories.”

Screenshot of video interview with Uncle Frank Laxton
Still from interview with Uncle Frank Laxton, as part of BADAC Stories


One of the interview subjects, Uncle Frank Laxton, talks about life on a mission in his video, as well as his experience working at BADAC. Uncle Frank served on the BADAC Board as Chairperson and Director for 20 years. He also started a maintenance crew for BADAC and helped young offenders through the community-based orders scheme with the courts. He’s now retired but his wife still works at BADAC and his whole Ballarat family are connected to the co-op in some way. He says that when he joined BADAC in 1991, there were only around 12 people working there. He’s watched it grow over the years, but it was 2004, when current CEO Karen Heap came on board, that the co-op really took off.

“Karen Heap does such a top job. The programs we have here now are incredible. The co-op does such a great job for the community, we’d be lost without it!”

Under Karen’s leadership, BADAC has introduced a wide range of family support services, including family violence programs, kinship care, mental health, drug and alcohol and housing and justice. She also envisioned, secured funding for, and delivered a new $6 million, culturally safe healthcare hub, which opened in 2019. Uncle Frank says the co-op offers every resource that the community needs, as well as providing opportunities for people to feel connected, from small get-togethers to huge events. “Every year BADAC holds an open day at the showgrounds for NAIDOC Week and there’s always thousands of people at it.”

Karen Heap, seated in a chair, at BADAC.
BADAC CEO Karen Heap, photograph supplied by BADAC


Karen Heap explains that one of the reasons these open days are so successful is the variety of activities on offer, from jumping castles, to hip-hop, to arts and crafts. Her team makes sure that every age group across the community feels welcome. This dedication to inclusivity is also evident in the co-op’s upcoming projects which range from increasing their kindergarten and long day care facilities, to an Elders’ Living Village that will provide both independence and support. Karen is proud of the “passionate and committed staff that work very hard to deliver a culturally safe service to all of our community. We have grown and developed over the last 43 years to ensure that the Aboriginal and Torres Strait community of Ballarat have the best services provided for them.”

And as BADAC continues to grow, so will BADAC Stories. The co-op is keen to think of the website as a ‘live project’ with the potential to upload additional interviews over time. They already have many more videos online than originally planned, because as momentum built during the filming, more people from the community were keen to be involved. Maryanne mentions how much the children in the community have loved seeing their families discussing BADAC’s history. “Stories such as this inspire pride in culture, connection to culture and sense of belonging.” She hopes that as they grow up, their experiences can be shared as part of BADAC Stories and that the project continues long term, instilling pride in the local community for generations to come. But it’s also a story that will be inspiring for all Victorians. As Maryanne says,

BADACs story is one of the most dispossessed groups of people in our community working together and fighting for better lives. Its a story of the strength of community to achieve powerful change. Its also testament to the fundamental importance of Aboriginal self-determination to close that gap.”

Thank you to Uncle Frank Laxton, Karen Heap and Maryanne Ross from BADAC for their time and thoughts.

Follow the link for more information on our local history grants program:


Material in the Public Record Office Victoria archival collection contains words and descriptions that reflect attitudes and government policies at different times which may be insensitive and upsetting

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples should be aware the collection and website may contain images, voices and names of deceased persons.

PROV provides advice to researchers wishing to access, publish or re-use records about Aboriginal Peoples