By Naomi Giles
NSW and the ACT have endured many challenges in recent years, with bushfires, drought, floods, plagues and COVID-19 impacting whole communities. Lives have been lost, properties destroyed, finances strained, and many small businesses have been forced to close.
Often there is a surge of help when a crisis hits, but what happens in the aftermath? We spoke with a number of our Fresh Hope churches about how they have walked with people in the longer term and the resilience that rises from among the people they meet.
In coastal areas where economies are tied to the rise and fall of the tourist trade, some of the realities of bushfire, flood and COVID-19 have bitten hard.
Nicole Gorzalka, a Fresh Hope chaplain in Batemans Bay on the NSW South Coast, says the region has been battered over the past 18 months.
“The fires on January 1st 2020 were enormous and then pretty well straight away we went into COVID, and then we had three additional floods that happened in that year,” she says.
Nicole, a Batemans Bay resident all her life, says the domino effect of crisis after crisis has affected people’s wellbeing.
The residents of The Glen aged care home, where she works as chaplain, are just starting to find normal rhythms again after a prolonged period of high stress.
“When the fires came, they all had to stay in place, 90 residents watching fire burning all around them. And that happened only around eight weeks before COVID hit, so there wasn’t a huge amount of time between the fires and getting shut down, and, really, they were still on high alert from the fires,” Nicole says.
Nicole has witnessed a change in many local people’s outlook on life, with more generosity being displayed, a greater buy-in to supporting appeals and projects, and a rise in volunteering.
“There’s a whole group of people who have really bounced back, with some real strengthening of some community spirit in our area,” she says.
Mouse plague hits farmers
In the state’s west, communities are just starting to recover from a devastating drought that spanned years. With good rains, the farmers are seeing bumper crops, but a new threat has emerged with the rise of a mouse plague.
Pastor Allan Vincent, of Dubbo Community Church, says people in his region are lurching from one crisis to another.
“It knocks them about. Some people will spend hundreds of thousands on baits to try and salvage the crop and with no real end in sight of the plague it is very hard,” he says.
“There’s nothing I can do to fix things. Sometimes we can provide cash help, but it’s really sitting down around the table with them, having a cuppa, and to share life is much more appreciated,” he says.
The isolation for farmers puts them in a vulnerable place, and Allan shares that being willing to drive out to be with people on their properties is so important.
“It’s their mental health that’s the concern through all these things; there’s always a breaking point so you don’t want to allow them to get to that breaking point. The more contact they have, a chance to sit down and chat, gives them the freedom to talk about how tough things are.”
Resilience comes through connection in community, and Allan believes the church can learn about how to stand with people in grief and loss from other places where the community gathers.
“Often places like the local pub provide space and connection for people when they are doing it tough,” says Allan. “At the pub they stand beside you, share, have a drink and provide a type of community. So, the church has to be really intentional on how we create community for these guys. We need to continue to look outside of ourselves and connect well and healthily with those around us,” he says.
Pastor John Latta, of Tweed Heads Church of Christ, says they are still supporting people who were impacted by the floods of April 2017, which hit the local area just at the front of the church’s sports centre building.
“I realised there was going to be a flood and I just went down to the river to talk to people and suggested we could open up our sports centre. I put it on Facebook that we could help in some way and that people could come and volunteer,” he says.
Once ABC Radio heard the story, the local community really got on board and the church coordinated more than 150 volunteers to help with the clean-up.
“The work still goes on because people became homeless and they live in their cars or in makeshift little communities in the sand dunes,” says John.
The church stayed in touch with the people and from this emerged a digital literacy program, which provides a battery for charging mobile phones, Wi-Fi access, a computer and printer. Volunteers can help people access community services, download forms, write resumes and apply for jobs.
During COVID-19 restrictions, this program had to be paused, but is now starting up again. Other needs for food, clothing, tarps and sleeping bags are also being responded to.
“A lot of the people you meet have had a lot of hardship in their lives. They’re incredibly resourceful but they can also become dependent on hand-outs. We try to help in ways that connect them, like hosting breakfasts, sitting down with them for meals and practical care,” John says.
John reflects that he has a saying – “Unhelpful help with good intentions” – that guides him as he listens and responds to the needs of the people who come. Rather than enabling dependency, John hopes they are continuing to build resilience in people, empowering them to find pathways out of where they are.
The recent events, including the bushfires at the start of 2020, has also helped the church realise their sports facility has a role to play in the broader community.
“We realised that our facility can be used to coordinate responses to disasters. There were hundreds and hundreds of people coming through to drop off donations for those affected by the bushfires and we sent three semi-trailer loads down to Batemans Bay,” says John.
Because of their involvement in these appeals, John says the local community has now become more responsive when the church highlights other needs arising among those doing it tough in the local area.
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