Julie Reece first took students to the Western Front while was teaching at Mt. Barker High School. Her first trip was in 2001 and the second in 2004. It was on the second tour ‘Remembrance 2004’, that student, Donna Mellors (nee Handke), first commemorated a Ngarrindjeri soldier, Rufus Rigney, at a special ceremony in Harlebeke New British Cemetery in Belgium. Donna collected soil from the Lakes and Coorong region that was Rufus' home and with special dispensation from the European Parliament, Donna was able to leave that soil at Rufus' grave. She then collected some of the soil from his grave to bring back to Australia.

In another moving ceremony on the 23rd April 2005, this soil was spread over the land and waters of Rufus' birthplace.

This ceremony gained significant national media attention through the ABC ‘7.30 Report’ and sparked the idea of sending students from the Lakes and Coorong region to the Western Front to commemorate the soldiers who left from there to fight in the First World War, never to return. ‘Connecting Spirits’ was born. The late Matt Rigney, Ngarrindjeri Elder, was responsible for coming up with the term ‘Connecting Spirits’, which was adopted as the project's title. We owe him a great deal and Matt is greatly missed by the members of the project.

The acknowledgement and honouring of the sacrifices made by our First Nations Peoples during all of the wars Australians have fought in, has taken too long and finally through many changes, this is beginning to change. The community of Raukkan now has its own war memorial dedicated to the 21 Ngarrindjeri men and boys who enlisted and fought in WW1, and the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander War Memorial on the Parade grounds in Adelaide commemorates all Indigenous South Australians who participated in wars and conflicts.


Donna Handke


"Victor then performed his dance. Seeing this young man, almost the age at which his great, great-uncle Rufus had died, perform a dance similar to one Rufus himself would have performed, was incredible. Our guests were amazed and could not take their eyes off him. They had never seen anything like this. His level of concentration and the delivery were astounding. I was very proud of him for bringing this part of his culture and showing his great, great-uncle that their culture lives; it hasn’t been lost. I wanted to see more. I couldn’t get over how like he was to an emu and a kangaroo. The way he propped himself up, looked around, scratched himself, you thought it was a kangaroo dressed as a human.”