Dolly’s last question that triggered tragic end
BIG chocolate-coloured eyes, a wide innocent grin and an escaped blonde curl peek out from underneath the wide brim of an Akubra hat in the soft, late-afternoon sun.
This is the only version of Amy Jayne Everett Australia should have ever known.
The cheeky little embodiment of country kids everywhere.
In a perfect world, maybe they would also have gone on to remember her for her work as a veterinarian - a career she had considered - or as an artist, her favourite subject at school.
But Amy, better known as Dolly, never got to become an artist or a vet or travel the world. Her dad Tick never got to walk her down the aisle, her mum Kate never got to watch her graduate and her big sister Meg never got to grow old with her best friend.
Instead, on January 3, 2018, four months shy of her 15th birthday and after years of relentless bullying from kids at school, the little girl with the cheeky grin in an Akubra hat took her own life.
Now instead of Dolly's image circulating once a year on the back of a rural magazine as the face of Akubra's holiday campaign next to the words, "A Christmas Star", that very same photo is plastered across newspapers and websites alongside headlines about suicide and bullying.
It was an unimaginable tragedy that sparked an avalanche of grief and shock across Australia and globally - how could this adorable little country kid with the megawatt smile and tangle of curls with the world at her feet and a family who loved her so fiercely be gone?
For her parents Tick and Kate and her big sister Meg, it was the beginning of a "living nightmare" that turned their world upside down. But it wasn't always like this.
Kate and Tick Everett met in true Queensland country fashion at the Warwick rodeo in 1998. "He can dance so that's always a nice start," Kate laughs from the patio of their property near Katherine in the Northern Territory.
Two years later in 2001 they were married and welcomed their first daughter Meg, a high-risk pregnancy, who was delivered in Toowoomba.
Nineteen months after Meg arrived, along came Dolly who was born on May 1, 2003, in Longreach weighing 3419g (seven pounds, eight ounces).
"That's when the nickname Dolly started," says Tick. "She just had that face like a proper little doll. I said to Kate she just looks like one of those little china dolls, and she was so tiny."
"She had these little painted-on lips, she was so cute," Kate adds.
The couple have spent their lives working on and managing some of the biggest cattle stations in the country from Queensland to the Northern Territory. And where Kate and Tick went, so too did Meg and Dolly.
It was a childhood of extraordinary adventure for the Everett kids who spent much of their time in stock camps experiencing life in some of the most remote and wild parts of the Australian landscape from the back of a horse.
The girls were polar opposites but the best of friends.
"Tick was running the camps and the girls grew up sleeping in swags most of the year," Kate says.
"Meg would be up at the crack of dawn, Tick's shadow and asking 'who is going where and what horses are they riding and are you sure this person can do that, dad' - you know because all dads need advice from their five-year-old daughters on how to run a camp," Kate laughs. "And Doll would just be rolling out of bed with her bundle of curls and still in her pyjamas and telling mad yarns to ringers - 'look at that pretty bird or this pretty flower'."
"If it could be unorganised and messy and fun, that was Doll. And Meg was making sure everybody was doing their jobs."
It was an idyllic childhood. Out at camp hundreds of kilometres from the nearest station for eight or nine months of the year, the two little girls charmed the ringers who worked the cattle. It was before iPhones and Facebook, and the lack of connection with the outside world created a strong sense of family within the camp - the crew would muster and fix fences by day and at night they'd play cards or tell yarns around the fire.
The family fondly remember their stint at Brunette Downs, a vast cattle station covering more than 12,000 square kilometres of remote land in the Northern Territory where Kate worked in the kitchens and Tick was the head stockman when the girls were around Grades 1 and 2.
It was here that the Akubra photographer captured that iconic photo of Dolly in the hat. Camera crews were always visiting the legendary cattle property - from National Geographic to RM Williams, they were all drawn to the station that epitomised outback Australia.
"All the station crew, the bore mechanics and the mechanics and gardeners they all had that little connection with Doll," Kate smiles.
"She would literally pick one a flower and she'd write another one a card. I remember one Valentine's Day at the station the bore mechanic at the time he came down and picked the girls up in his dinner suit and drove them up in the big bore truck to the kitchen and had Valentine's Day dinner. It was a real family atmosphere."
Even when the girls had access to a television - they weren't watching it, instead opting to ride their horses or cause mischief in ways that only country kids can.
"Meggie cantered by herself before she was three. She was off the lead rope and cantering on her own," Kate says.
"And hasn't really stopped have you mate? You've just gone harder and faster ever since," Tick proudly jokes with his eldest who gives him a sheepish grin.
"Doll on the other hand she was a bit steadier," Kate says. I do remember thinking my god I'm going to give up riding if this child doesn't get off the lead reign soon but she was just happy taking it slow."
It wasn't just cattle and horses that played a central role in day to day life, Dolly was a friend to all creatures great and small.
"Horses, chooks, dogs, she loved them all," Tick says.
"There was always a story that's for sure. It didn't matter what you were doing there was always a little bit of something going on in the background with Meg and Dolly. There was always a bit of mischief somewhere."
"They'd be breaking in miniature ponies for fun and we'd come home and find them up on the veranda or they'd sneak the dogs into the house or they'd be down the creek with their little yabby pots trying to catch fish. They were always up to something."
But it wasn't all fun and mischief. The girls worked hard, helping out on the property and doing their lessons as students of the School of the Air.
The girls completed most of their primary school years via distance education, an experience Meg said they both enjoyed.
"It was pretty good, better than real school," Meg smiles. "You'd do a few days at once so you didn't have to go to school so many days."
But as the girls grew, Tick and Kate were adamant that their children be given the best education and the opportunities that come with it. So in 2015, both girls started at a small country boarding school in the same town in which the couple had met 17 years earlier.
Meg was in Year 8 and Dolly in Year 7. They were both happy to go. Excited to try something new.
But that excitement soon morphed into something more sinister for Dolly who became the victim of relentless bullying. It began as name calling and insults - but it was written off as typical schoolyard banter. From there things spiralled and it only got worse when Dolly stuck up for other children being bullied, herself becoming the focus of cruel verbal, physical and online attacks.
"It was just little bits early in the piece and probably not enough to red flag I suppose," Kate says of the bullying. "It progressively got worse."
Tick says the bullying "was like a snowball". "It started off as something that could have been fixed relatively easy and it just got away from everyone and once it got that momentum on, it just got out of hand," he says. "Nobody really knew how to fix it or what to do and unfortunately it didn't go away."
Dolly, ever the tough country kid tried to fix the situation on her own, confiding very little in her family about the challenges she faced. She was at the opposite end of the boarding house to Meg. They ran in different circles - Meg in the cattle club and Dolly playing sports.
"She kind of kept it all a secret I guess," Meg says.
Kate says Dolly's demeanour would change before she would return to school after holidays at home.
"But Meg's did too," she says. "They'd get that stiff upper lip. It's tough you know.
"It's not like we were three hours down the road, we were a nine-hour drive and a three-hour flight and another two-hour drive. It was a big deal. It was quite a lot different to other kids.
"There was a lot to cope with so did we look at it and go, 'Gee, is something more sinister going on?', probably not.
"And I guess we just did what we thought was right at the time too," Kate says, her voice breaking. "We were adamant that they'd be offered a good education and now you look back and think, gee, is that so important any more?"
"And I think everybody too gets busy," Tick adds. "You're busy and always thinking and trying to put a positive spin on things rather than sitting back and going there is an issue here, maybe we should just slow down.
"I mean hindsight is always your best friend too. But I think as parents if we slowed down a little bit and we weren't so worried about taking a day to sit down and talk to our kids instead of saying it'll be right."
Despite the hard time she'd had at school, when Dolly came home for the summer holidays at the end of Year 9 in late 2017 she fitted back in like the missing piece of the Everett family puzzle. At the time Tick and Kate were managing a 300,000ha Northern Territory property with 20,000 head of cattle near the West Australian border.
Meg, who had spent her weekends at school working with horses on a friend's property, returned from holidays and dived straight into more work, helping out friends who ran the export yards at Katherine, before returning home a few days before Christmas.
Kate says Dolly returned from school "a bit flat" but after a couple of days on the property it was like she had never left.
"She was happy to be home and all that just kind of fades away after a few days," Kate says.
"It was busy, we were still flat out right up until Christmas Eve. But it was just a nice family Christmas - it was nice and quiet and we had a few days off."
Ten days after Christmas on January 3, Dolly asked her mum if she had made plans for them to return to school. She had - the girls were booked to leave two weeks later on January 18. Dolly spent that day working on the property with Meg. A typical day for the Everett girls.
"She was good," Meg says of Dolly's mood that day. "We raced around doing jobs and had races on the bikes. We were fixing fences and stuff like that. "It was a good day. It didn't really seem like anything was any different."
That night, after making a dinner of steak, coleslaw and potato salad for her family - Dolly ended her life.
Three hundred kilometres south of Darwin, amid a vast landscape of red dirt, termite mounds and cycads, lies Katherine.
This is tough country - but the people who live here are tougher.
About 20 minutes outside of town, past blocks of mango crops and Australian flags hanging limp in the dry heat of the day and past the sign warning of the day's high fire danger - is a gate painted blue - Dolly's favourite colour. Down the driveway - past more red dirt and termite mounds is an oasis - a red, rendered brick home surrounded by lush green grass and gardens filled with fruit trees, frangipanis and palms.
It's been more than two and a half years since the night Kate Everett lay with her youngest daughter while waiting more than three hours for help to arrive at the remote property where they then lived, promising her over and over that her death would not be in vain. And it hasn't been.
In the aftermath of the crippling heartache of losing their beloved daughter and sister, Kate, Tick and Meg have built Dolly's Dream - a foundation dedicated to stamping out bullying and giving a voice to those in need. It's a labour of love.
Their lives have taken a dramatic turn from their days managing cattle stations bigger than some countries. After losing Dolly, they packed up their station life and moved to a rental property outside of Katherine. A week before Christmas, they purchased the red rendered-brick home on 35ha of land, which backs on to the Katherine River in croc country.
It's a home full of love and filled with family mementos - paintings by Dolly hang on the walls, photos of the girls line the shelves, ribbons from equestrian events are displayed and old riding boots from when the girls were little sit on a low shelf.
Tick now has a job in the fast-paced world of cattle exports, working in an office in Darwin and pre-COVID flying across the country and the world doing business. His phone never stops ringing and some weeks he was booked on a dozen flights.
Kate is working as a pharmaceuticals representative for the biggest animal health company in the world, covering a vast territory that also means she's on the road a lot. But perhaps the biggest change has been for Meg who turned 19 this month. She had been due to begin Year 11 weeks after her sister died but she didn't return to school and like her parents, she threw herself into work.
She started her own business breaking in horses and also works as a subcontractor for cattle stations across the territory - she's done a lot of kilometres behind the wheel and on the back of a horse over the past three years - gypsy miles, her mum calls them.
Humble, clever, and kind, at 19, Meg carries herself with a grace and maturity that many twice her age would struggle to achieve. What she's lost in schooling, she's more than made up for in life experiences. Often the only woman in a stock camp filled with men, Meg holds her own whether it's mustering, fixing fences, or driving the horse truck.
"I really like the challenge," Meg says of the tough work. "It's a good adventure really. You never know what's coming but you know it's going to be fun."
She's also developed a passion for photography. Dad Tick gifted her a camera for Christmas and she shares stunning photos from her life on the land on Instagram.
"It's pretty cool," she says of the photographic opportunities on the remote stations. "You just turn around and there's some out-of-control sunset. It's just amazing the things that you come across."
Before the coronavirus hit, Meg had also hoped to travel to America and Canada to travel and work on cattle ranches owned by friends. One day she might finish the school she missed after losing her sister but for now but she has plenty of other plans for her bright future.
"I'd like to travel and keep working with cattle and horses," Meg says. "I'd also like to do my helicopter licence and mustering endorsement - but it would be hard to give up horses," she says with a smile.
Nothing could have prepared the family for the bright media spotlight that shone on them in the wake of Dolly's death, especially young Meg.
"I kind of hid from it all I guess," Meg says of the attention.
"I don't really feel the need to have people see me and know about me. I just want to be able to go out and not have people say, 'Oh that's that girl'."
"It's definitely been very different. Especially when I do go somewhere with Mum and Dad, even people talking to them the stuff you hear is crazy. The stuff you've just never seen or heard because you live out of phone service. It's crazy."
But no matter how far she wanders from home or how many gypsy miles she clocks up, Meg's little sister is still with her. Pinned to Meg's Akubra is a little blue angel, a reminder of her mischievous little sidekick. "Every day with Dolly, we could be doing the worst jobs and you wouldn't even worry about it because she was so much fun," Meg says.
"There was never a dull moment."
"Probably our favourite thing was going riding together. We'd always go for a drive or fix a fence or do something. We would never be too far apart.
"I wasn't very artistic or anything like Dolly so it was kind of more anything in the outdoors was what we got up to."
Meg isn't the only one who carries Dolly with her each day. Kate's Akubra is adorned with a blue ribbon - as Dolly's favourite colour it was the hue they asked mourners to wear at her funeral. She and Tick also carry some of their little girl's ashes with them wherever they go. Kate in small urn alongside a doll-shaped pendant with Dolly's name inscribed upon it. And Tick in a pin that spells Dolly's name that he wears on the back of his Akubra.
Sitting on the patio, they overlook the property they share with their eight horses, a poddy calf named Chug, a gaggle of chooks, a flock of wild guineafowl that showed up one day and never left and their dogs Ivan and Onewho (Ivan't got any manners and Onewho does nothing), the Everetts say Dolly is always with them.
Kate says there are reminders of Dolly everywhere - in the smell of a rose, in the first rain of the season that would bring a sparkle to Dolly's eye and even in pancakes - because it's not a special occasion without pancakes.
Dolly is even there in Kate's morning cup of coffee.
"Every morning she would laugh and say 'mama, want to hear a joke: decaf'," Kate says.
"And we would make a coffee and she would breathe it in and say smells like hopes and dreams, her eyes laughing.
"The smell of Tommy Girl perfume stops me every time - she's everywhere."
Far from being fractured by the pain of Dolly's loss and the physical distance their jobs demand of them, it's clear this is as tightknit a family as they come. The adoration Kate, Tick and Meg have for one another is etched on their faces and perceptible in every interaction.
It's in the gentle hand Tick puts on Kate's hand as she speaks, in the quiet jokes they all make to each other as they pose for photographs, in the way Kate and Tick glow with pride as Meg speaks, in Meg's expression as she watches her parents look at one another, and in the gentle good-natured ribbing the women give Tick.
The bush soundtrack plays in the background as we chat, the horses are whinnying, cockatoos squawk as they fly overhead and the rooster crows.
"If you had asked me three years ago would you live in Darwin city and work in an office seven days a week, I'd say nope," Tick reflects.
"But when we lost Doll we moved back to Katherine and I was picking up work here, there and everywhere and when this (opportunity) came to me I was like that's not me but then you think well what else have you got to lose, you've been through hell why not try something different and better your skill set.
"Life is what you make it. At the end of the day you're given an opportunity and some things are good and some aren't and you have to decide are you going to grab hold of it and see where it takes you or are you just going to sit back and be mournful and hope somebody feels sorry for you."
For all of the family, staying busy and working hard on Dolly's Dream and their jobs has helped with the grieving process.
"Don't get me wrong there's some days where you wake up in the morning and you roll back over and cry yourself back to sleep," Tick says.
"That's life. And whether it goes away or whether it doesn't, who knows. We definitely have our challenges."
Kate says it's taken her a long time to learn an important lesson - that it's OK to ask for help. "Which we probably didn't do well enough at the start so it's been a bit of a learning curve for all of us in that respect," she says. "But we all have different things that work for us and self-care obviously plays a massive part in that.
"I see a counsellor every week, I've started running, I've changed my diet, I've changed a lot of lifestyle stuff and that enables me to cope better. If that message alone changes someone's life or inspires someone to ask for help then that's worth getting out of bed for isn't it.
"Some days you're high vibe-ing and kicking goals and then for some reason you roll out of bed the next day and you can't tie your shoelaces or make your own coffee so you just roll with the punches a bit."
Asking for help and speaking up are some of the biggest messages they try to spread through the anti-bullying organisation established in Dolly's memory which acts as a voice for those who cannot speak for themselves and works to prevent the lives of other children being lost.
The messaging around Dolly's Dream, which is supported by national children's charity, the Alannah & Madeline Foundation, has already reached more than 11 million people.
Its cyber safety school programs, run in partnership with the Queensland Government, are being rolled out across the state.
Dolly's Dream also provides bullying and wellbeing advice and resources for parents online and offers free community resilience workshops across regional Queensland.
The second Friday in May is Do it for Dolly Day - a day which commemorates Dolly and calls on families, schools and businesses to say no to bullying, dress in blue and be kind.
In 2018, the NSW government passed "Dolly's Law", under which cyberbullies can face up to five years' jail for sending abusive emails or posting hurtful messages.
"I think our story and the fact it picked up so much traction definitely showed that there is a massive issue here and it's not about Dolly," Kate says.
"She might have been the catalyst but this is about every other person out there in every school, foster home and workplace that needs to stand up and say 'this is not good and we need to change it'."
Kate urges parents to do whatever it takes to protect their children.
"We get asked so many times what to do if there's an issue at school - do what you've got to do, honestly. There's all the professional message of take it down, record it, report it online, but honestly just do whatever you have to. Even if it's changing schools or moving states or home schooling, do it. You'd do it in a heartbeat."
"At the end of the day," Tick says, "if you can go to bed at night knowing you've helped one person let alone maybe 100 or 1000, it's worthwhile. It's not an easy gig by any means."
The couple has received awards and recognition for their charity work but as Tick says, "you'd give it all back in a heartbeat" to have Dolly back safe in their arms.
The family are often approached by people in the community whether at an airport or a pub and even overseas who thank them for what they're doing and share how their message has helped other families.
"That sort of stuff is what keeps us going," Tick says.
"We can't change what's happened so we might as well try and help."
A powerful drawing Dolly made before her death of a girl surrounded by the words "speak even if you voice shakes" was shared by thousands of people in the weeks after she died.
Tick says Dolly, who would have graduated high school this year, would be surprised by all the attention, but proud of her family and the legacy she has created.
"I think she'd be proud in a way," Tick smiles.
"I think she'd be pleased it's making a difference because she was always batting for the underdog team. Even right down to watching the footy, she'd ask whose going to win dad and then she'd support the other team. But that was just her.
"So I think in a way she'd be proud of what she's done. She wrote the words, she drew the picture and we just put it out there."
When asked what they'd say to kids who are being bullied, they had one simple message.
"Speak up," Kate says, her voice breaking. "We just never wanted another family to feel like this, to deal with this."
"Ask for help," Tick adds.
"Suicide is not the answer, it might feel like it's the answer but it doesn't help in the end. I understand why people feel that - I've had family members do it, I've had mates do it, I've had my own daughter do it.
"Yeah the pain finishes for them but it only just starts for everybody else. There's a whole lot more to life, especially at 14, it's too young, at any age it's too young, your whole life is ahead of you."
For Kate, Tick and Meg, it's unclear exactly what the future holds but for now they're throwing themselves into their jobs, working on Dolly's Dream and taking the time to enjoy each other's company when they can amid their busy schedules.
"We've met some incredible people from all around the world, we've had some tough conversations with people and we've had a lot of enjoyable times too," Tick says when asked what's next for the family. "In a funny ironic way it's also been rewarding.
"We're going to have a holiday one day too," he says smiling at his wife.
"From a charity perspective it would be nice in the next two to five years if we were a global name," Kate says. "If we can do that that'll be mind-blowing."
It's a lofty goal but this Aussie family will do whatever it takes to save lives and spread their message in honour of that little brown-eyed girl in the Akubra hat - be kind, do it for Dolly and no matter what, speak - even if your voice shakes.
The Suicide Call Back service is on 1300 659 467 and Lifeline is on 13 11 14.
Originally published as Dolly's last question that triggered tragic end