BARBRO Watt comes into the Hawkesbury Gazette office for our interview, well-dressed, as usual.
The 83-year-old Kurmond resident is wearing tailored white pants, a funky cropped black jacket, Italian leather ankle boots and a printed top. She’s accessorised, too; a chunky bracelet and necklace in bright colours and a stylish handbag complete her outfit.
Where does she buy her clothes? Anglicare, of course.
Barbro has been involved with the charity’s recycled clothes outlets for almost 35 years, starting-off as an employee in the eighties, then switching to volunteering 17 years ago.
These days, you’ll find her at the Windsor Street, Richmond store. From her post in the back room (she calls it ‘the dungeon’) where she prices stock and manages the Community Pantry (offering $10 bags of groceries on Wednesdays from 10am until 2pm), her presence in the shop is infectious.
Barbro doesn’t search for jobs - they find her. This has happened her entire life, she says, beginning with the first job she ever landed as a hairdresser in the city when she had recently migrated with her family from Sweden and didn’t speak a word of English. She walked in for a haircut and walked out with a contract.
Three decades ago, she started her journey with Anglicare in a similar way. She lived in Kellyville at the time and was buying books in Blacktown, got chatting to the manager, and was asked if she wanted a job.
“I said yes, it’ll be fun! I started casually and then they gave me a full time job. I worked in St Marys, Penrith, all over the place,” Barbro told the Gazette.
“We used to do fashion parades! I loved it. In the shop we used to have a catwalk and I’d model all the clothes from the op shop.”
Seventeen years ago, she retired and moved out to Kurmond with her husband. But the social butterfly that she is, she found herself bored, and soon enough she was back at Anglicare volunteering in Richmond, under store manager Bronwyn Ashcroft.
“Bronwyn and I, we’re a bit nuts! I think it’s good - you can’t be serious all the time,” Barbro laughs.
Barbro prices stock according to a guide, but she has the autonomy to tag items according to what she feels they’re worth.
Clothes come to Barbro from a humongous warehouse in Summer Hill, and before that they are collected from Anglicare clothing bins all around Sydney, “even from the posher suburbs like Vaucluse and Double Bay,” she says.
Just like any other customer, Barbro loves a good op-shop-find. The boots she’s wearing came to Anglicare full of mud, but after a good clean and a polish she decided they looked so good she ought to purchase them herself. “I’m an op-shopaholic!” she laughs.
“I buy so much. I’m disgusting! When my husband was alive, he used to say, ‘Barbro, I don’t care what you buy but you’ve only got one body and two feet!’ I’d say, “Have I? Oh, what a pity!’”
While she doesn’t buy as much as she used to (and sometimes re-donates her purchases back to the shop), when asked how long she’ll continue volunteering - and shopping - at Anglicare, she says, “until I … drop!”
“I love all the customers that come in. We have hundreds of regulars, and we get some lovely people. I go home at the end of the day, and I feel good,” she says.
Some regulars come in on Thursdays especially to rifle through the week’s new stock delivery - and have a natter with Barbro, of course.
“They say, ‘Ohh Barbro! You’re in today! Oh goody goody! I won’t stay long. I’ll just tell you. So and so… ‘“ she laughs.
“One woman said, ‘Barbro, I hate to tell you this, but this place is my therapy!’”
She says some people try to bargain: “I say I’m sorry, this is a charity!”
When asked how long she’ll continue volunteering - and shopping - at Anglicare, Barbro says, “until I … drop!”
“We helped a family yesterday - they had no food. The woman got a pair of warm tracksuit pants and a lovely coat to go with it. I said ‘Look at you! You look fantastic!” she says.
“I just love the people. I don’t care who they are, what they’ve got. None of us know what we’re in for, do we? I just wish everybody to be happy and safe.”
Barbro has four kids and three grandkids. Sadly, her husband passed away 14 years ago. When Barbro’s not at Anglicare, you’ll find her at home in her garden.
“I’ve got views for miles, I love it! The kids reckon they’re going to find me dead in the garden one day, and I say ‘Good! As long as it’s quick!’” she says.
Barbro was 14 when she came out with her family to Australia, from a place called Gothenburg.
“We came out on a Swedish cargo ship. There were only 24 passengers, and the ship was called ‘Parramatta’ - would you believe it?” she says.
“It took six weeks. We stopped in Canary Islands, Cape Town and Durban, and when we stopped in Portugal we weren’t allowed to get off the ship - we had to stop outside in the sea and they came via tug boat to give us cholera shots, which was raging, before we came in.
“I was sea sick from the day we left to the day we got here. I was a skeleton! It was horrible.”
Barbro celebrated her 83rd birthday recently and the Anglicare team threw her a little in-store party. She wore a sparkly tiara all week.
- We Are Hawkesbury, My Story, is a series of profiles of Hawkesbury personalities where we attempt to showcase the extraordinary in the seemingly ordinary: