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A tree of healing

Michele Frankeni  |  06 February 2019

Although Red Dust Healing comes from an Aboriginal perspective, it gives all peoples the tools to cope with grief and loss. In the decade since it was begun, more than 15,000 people have taken part in the program, and only 11 did not finish.

Tom Powell, a Warramunga man from within the Wiradjuri Nation in the Central West of NSW, said Red Dust Healing is about bringing out of people what they already know. ‘It’s not teaching but about our choices and identity and allowing people to tell their story.’

 It was a tree on the banks of the Macquarie River that inspired Tom Powell’s ‘Family Tree’, used by the Red Dust Healing program.

Tom was 22 when his dad died. He said things fell apart for him then.

‘I slipped off the rails a bit. At one stage, I found myself sitting on a bank on Macquarie River at my home town of Narromine (more than two hours west of Dubbo) and I was not in a good mindset.’

Leaning against a large tree on the edge of the river, he realised under that tree were growing two four-foot saplings. ‘I thought in my own world “you little trees are going to be like that big one, one day”. You’re going to have to grow in that gap along the river.’

Tom walked away and didn’t think about the tree again until he founded Red Dust Healing.

‘With Red Dust, I thought “how am I going to make it about black, white, different races, different cultures, young, old, men and women? How am I going to make it about everybody?”

‘The first image that popped into my head was that tree. I didn’t know it then, but that day I got shown life.’


After the dark period in his life, Tom worked in juvenile justice.

‘We were doing some great stuff with the young kids but they were going home to the same environment they had left, and that was what I wanted to fix. I wanted to give families and individuals the tools to be part of their own solutions.’

Tom designed Red Dust Healing in 2007 with the aim of restoring families. The main tool in the program is the tree.

‘The root system is family and the things we like and make us – faith, culture, sport, music. The trunk of tree becomes us, and the branches are the choices we make.

‘From our root system we get good nutrients such as love, respect, caring, shelter, wisdom, identity, the list goes on. Unfortunately, some root systems give bad nutrients – abandonment, abuse, neglect, domestic violence. Also, grief and loss.’

Tom knew his Dad did not ask to die, but said it still felt like rejection.

‘It’s the rejection we concentrate on. People talk about trauma all the time but where does the trauma come from? It comes from abuse, neglect, grief, loss abandonment. Rejection is the underlying factor and rejection goes up that tree from the root system or rejection can happen from a lightning strike – an outside source such as cancer, disability and mental health.’

Red Dust Healing then is about ensuring people understand that rejection is never their fault.

‘Not one person has ever said, abuse me, neglect me, abandon me. We just get given it.

‘We make choices then to send the rejection back down our tree and disrespect and reject ourselves first before passing that rejection on to others. Or we can make good choices and send the good nutrients down through ourselves, this time loving and accepting ourselves first before we pass that back down to others in our family.

‘If we understand how a tree works, we can make better choices and break that cycle.’


Tom says when people are allowed to tell their story, it restores humanity and connection to their root system.

‘We want people to understand that somebody does love them and somebody is thinking about them. It’s about trying to help them understand that they do have people in their lives.’

Red Dust Healing is open to men and women.

‘Even though it comes from an Aboriginal perspective, it’s not about black or white. It’s about right, wrong, love, respect and boundaries. It’s for everybody.’

Tom’s goal is to have Red Dust healing centres around this country.

‘These are places where people can go to heal, not for rehab. What holds Red Dust unique is a physical walk around the map. We ask people to stand and say “show me how you asked for abuse, neglect?”. We ask them then to identify where all the good nutrients come from and what’s the legacy you want to leave for your kids?’

Tom said he just loves the work with Red Dust Healing.

‘I’ve been on an 11-year holiday. I love the people I meet. There’s good in every person.’

However, when Tom knows he’s had enough for a while he returns to the place where it began.

‘When my glass gets empty, I shut down and go home to Narromine and sit under the tree. I sometimes have a good cry, play golf with my uncle, see my mates and see all the people who gave me the start in life and then I’m ready to go again.’

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