As a school counsellor Olivia Toubia is well versed in the range of social and emotional issues many young students face. But when starting the 2020 school year with a new job at Hills Christian Community School at Verdun in the Adelaide Hills, little could have prepared her for what she faced.  

Just weeks earlier, the area had been decimated by bushfires, sparked by an uncontrollable blaze at Cudlee Creek, just north of the school, which eventually tore through over 25,000 hectares of land, leaving in its devastating wake destroyed homes, livelihoods and lives. 

Olivia said she encountered a school community in shock, grief-stricken by what had happened. “Almost everyone had been affected by the fires in some way, either directly or through someone they knew. It was a sad start to the school year,” recalled Olivia. 

As the school community came together to support each other as best it practically could – running food and clothing drives – it was clear that for many younger people, emotional help was also needed. 

“At the beginning of the school year, we noticed some students really struggled to focus - they were hyper-vigilant to sounds, their anxiety levels were high and they were often distracted.” These were offered the Stormbirds program. 

Thanks to funding from the St George Foundation, Olivia had undertaken training in Stormbirds, which was developed in 2009 as a short-term mental health response to Victoria’s Black Saturday bushfires. It has since been used to support bushfire, flood, earthquake and more recently, COVID-19 affected communities in Australia and New Zealand.  

Based on feedback from parents, Olivia said five students were selected to participate in the program. Among them an eight-year-old consumed by anxiety, who had stopped eating, couldn’t focus in the classroom and struggled to fall asleep at night. Another rarely ventured out further than his home or school, still nervous in the aftermath of the fires. In their shared anxiety, the group found a strong sense of camaraderie. 

Olivia said the students loved being part of a group that all experienced the same emotions. From the first session, they welcomed the opportunity to talk with each other about what had happened and how they felt. 

 “They loved Stormbirds. Despite the bushfires having occurred months earlier, they still wanted to talk and hear what each other had to say.” Olivia Toubia, Stormbirds Companion 

Shared emotional support wasn’t the only benefit gained: one student has since used the coping skills taught to better manage the challenging upheaval of a parent undergoing cancer treatment, while another uses Stormbirds’ tools whenever he is stressed. 

COVID-19 and a mentally exhausted school community saw limited Stormbirds sessions offered to students, however Olivia is keen to provide the opportunity as the year progresses. 

"The work we’ve done with Stormbirds to date has been very successful with feedback, particularly from parents, indicating their children have loved it: it’s proven to be an activity that offers a positive association with the fires," Olivia said.