Children from St Anthony’s Primary School in Kingscliff, northern NSW, get to say thank you to local SES heroes and soldiers from the Australian army who rescued them from floods and rising waters earlier this year. 

On Friday 16 September at 8.40 am, school children will present local SES members and representatives from the army with cards they have prepared. It’s a rare opportunity for rescuers to get the chance meet some of the children they brought to safety from the floods. 

Children from the school have recently taken part in Stormbirds, a program run by MacKillop Family Services, that provides an opportunity for children and young people who have experienced a natural disaster, to share their experiences of change and loss in safe and creative ways and learn skills for adapting and recovering. Stormbirds is facilitated by trained adult ‘Companions’. 

During Stormbirds sessions at the school, it emerged that the children found great comfort in the calm and confident manner displayed by those who came to rescue them from the impending floods. When describing their emotions about being in such an unusual emergency situation, what stood out to the Companions was the ways children talked about how rescuers reassured them and helped them to feel safe. 

One young boy who was rescued from the deck of his home with his family said, 

“When I saw them come for us in the boat, I wasn’t scared any more. Our heroes came to get us, put us in the boat and took us to our aunt’s house where we were safe.” 

Another added, “When we got to the centre, we found a ball and they played football with us, they were really good footballers!” 

Professor Anne Graham, author of the Stormbirds program, is from the Northern Rivers area and Director of the Centre for Children and Young People at Southern Cross University, which was one of the evacuation centres in the area. Professor Graham understands how important it is for children to be supported in processing their emotions after being through a natural disaster and knowing who to reach out to when in any challenging times ahead. 

“A key part of the Stormbirds session is ‘Growing Stronger Together’, which supports children and young people to identify ways that coming through a natural disaster can strengthen communities. It’s important that they can name the special people, places and things that helped them through a difficult time. Knowing there are people who continue to support them beyond the immediate crisis is critical for developing resilience and feeling positive about the future,” adds Professor Graham. 

MacKillop’s Fiona McCallum, who leads the team that support communities with Stormbirds, says the program provides a safe space for children and young people to give a voice to their experiences and learn appropriate knowledge, skills and attitudes to understand the changes brought about by a natural disaster.   

“We know too, that children will react differently following difficult life events and Stormbirds provides children with an opportunity to develop the skills to understand and talk about their reactions and feelings, and importantly, to understand that it is very normal to experience ‘big’ feelings after a disaster event.” 

“Many children and young people ultimately demonstrate resilience after experiences such as disaster events. Future coping is dependent on many things and in particular, social considerations including providing children with an opportunity to develop supportive relationships, be involved in decisions affecting them, have support from the wider community and have the opportunity to help and be involved.  The school celebration with the SES and Army are a wonderful celebration of the journey of Stormbirds,” Fiona added. 

The children have made thank you cards for the SES members and Army and will present them at a special school assembly. 

The Stormbirds training was funded by Healthy North Coast PHN Community Wellbeing and Resilience Program, along with our other change, loss and grief support training sessions for children and adults following natural disaster events.   

Over the past two years, Stormbirds has supported over 600 school communities and 8,000 children following bushfires, floods and other weather events.  MacKillop is pleased to announce that Stormbirds has been selected as a finalist in the NSW category of the Resilient Australia Awards for projects focusing on the mental health and wellbeing of Australian communities before, during and after a disaster.  Fiona says, this is a celebration not only of the program, but all those who contribute to sharing Stormbirds with children in areas of most need.