Orbost, Victoria was decimated by years of drought and a declining timber industry – a source of employment for many of the town’s people – then the bushfires proved yet another blow. When COVID-19 hit, the cumulative effect was overwhelming. 

It was a couple of days before New Year’s Eve 2019 that Lea Young remembers as the moment she needed to make a decision whether to evacuate the small Victorian town of Orbost where she lives with her husband and son. With catastrophic bushfires raging throughout the East Gippsland region, she knew it was only a matter of time before the danger to Orbost, already surrounded by fires, would become critical. 

Despite most of the town’s population of just over 2,000 evacuating to safer locations, Lea and her family stayed, offering to assist in any way they could. It was a way to support a community that Lea says she has come to love in the three years she’s lived there with her family. 

While the town was saved, much of its surrounds wasn’t. When COVID-19 hit in early 2020, the cumulative effect proved overwhelming for many, particularly for so many young people. 

With a background in youth work and family services, Lea welcomed the opportunity to take on a student wellbeing role at the Orbost Primary School. When the chance to train in the Stormbirds program was offered in October last year, Lea readily agreed. 

Created in 2009 following Victoria’s Black Saturday bushfires, Stormbirds is a natural disasters program that helps communities to emotionally recover following a significant event, like a bushfire. Thanks to funding from UNICEF Australia, more than 20 teachers, health professionals and community members in the Gippsland region have been trained in the program, enabling them to deliver it to children, young people and adults. 

The first of three Stormbirds programs ran at the end of 2020. Despite a lapse of some 11 months since the fires, Lea says the students continued to be affected by the event, and required support: 

“We had a number of students suffering ongoing psychological stress from the fires: we were seeing everything from continence issues, separation anxiety, behavioural problems and a lot of anger. Some were still incredibly traumatised.” 

The first students to undertake the program loved it. Lea created a relaxed, safe space where students felt comfortable enough to talk about their memories of the fires and how they felt about what had happened. 

“There were some huge emotional leaps forward for many of the students.” 

Lea was full of praise for Stormbirds, noting how easy the program was for the students to follow. 

“The kids really appreciated the opportunity to talk about what they had experienced and to learn strategies to manage big feelings and accept change. They found comfort in knowing they had all been through the same event together and now have that bond.”