The past few years have seen communities across NSW rocked by successive natural disasters. Bushfires destroyed much of regional NSW, leaving behind communities devastated. Then, without time to draw breath, in 2020 COVID hit. A rolling wave of floods in 2022, inundating already devastated communities, left people homeless, jobless, and in some instances, despairing.
Resilience NSW was charged to support communities impacted by these ongoing disasters, including the funding of MacKillop Family Services’ ‘Growing Resilient Communities’ program. The program offered the evidence-based grief and loss programs Seasons for Growth and Stormbirds to help families and their children, as well as professionals working to support communities, the time, space, and guidance to manage the emotional impact of these disasters.
This two-year project, initially developed for bushfire response, gradually morphed and adapted as circumstances rapidly changed. Focussing on the three regions most severely impacted by bushfires, Hawkesbury/Greater Blue Mountains, Northern NSW and Southern NSW, the program had to manage the tyranny of distance, and changing community needs. Key to the program’s success was its adaptability. The four Community Resilience Officers (CROs) engaged to work in the program, Monica from Southern NSW, Michelle from Northern NSW and Juliane and Benita from the Hawkesbury/Greater Blue Mountains region, along with their Manager Godelieve H had to respond to community need rather than deliver a prescriptive program.
Communities in disaster impacted areas are often unable to cope with additional program offerings. Teachers have commented they feel overwhelmed, with Michelle stating that in Northern NSW the teacher shortage was so desperate that there had been some instances where teachers needed to teach two classes simultaneously while the shortage was addressed. This meant that the usual method of delivering Seasons for Growth or Stormbirds to schools had to be adapted. The CROs were often a conduit, bringing people and organisations together to ensure the right support was delivered at the right time. Monica has been working with Headspace to deliver a community session to high schools. With already established relationships in schools, partnering with Headspace helps support the already overwhelmed teachers.
The program is delivered across 3 regions under the guidance of Community Resilience Officers, who are trained in Seasons for Growth and Stormbirds and have professional expertise in working in mental health and community services. Michelle, Monica, Juliane, and Benita have developed a strong connection as a team of CROs (Community Resilience Officer) working online to build a team that supports one another, brainstorm flexible responses to diverse community needs and develops adaptive community sessions. The mutual support they receive from this collaborative work is one of their highlights in the role. Michelle said that she felt privileged to work with such a passionate group of people.
“I have never worked, in my entire career, with a group that are so open and sharing, and generous. It is a gift, and we cannot help but make an impact with the community.”
Monica applauded their Program Manager, Godelieve who had recruited such an amazing team, and gave them autonomy to respond to individual community needs.
The CROs reflected that connection and building trust was a significant part of their roles. They as a team value and respect each other. The community’s feedback is that they feel heard. The team spoke of the supportive nature of the project. It does not just touch the surface but allows people to go deeper, supported by a framework of trust. Monica emphasised the importance of the program’s connection with nature. The idea that like nature, there can be healing through disasters. Juliane explained that in many of these disasters ridden areas there has been an influx of services, but then suddenly once the funding stops, they disappear. This is why long-term funding is so critical. It takes time recover from trauma. She also sees that an important part of their role is to hold momentum and build trust. “We need to support people to realise that talking about change and death does not bring it on. We need a language to allow people to communicate. There is collective trauma. It is a challenge.”
Monica has seen this with hospital staff who have coped with wave after wave of COVID. For them, spending hours each day in full personal protective equipment, it is hard to see a light at the end of the tunnel, but Monica said that the community sessions the team has developed have given health workers a much-needed space to debrief. There is a realisation through the program that like the seasons, people will have dark times but will also be able to move into spring and then summer. Being embedded in the community through work with interagency forums and community based agencies, allows the CROs and their team of companions to develop long term relationships and support people through devastating events like the 2019/20 bushfires, with Benita saying that what touches her deeply in the role, notwithstanding the pain and struggle, is the strength in the communities, which she believes emerges alongside the dedication, commitment and genuineness of all the services she has met and formed connections with.
“Although each communities’ needs are unique, there is a common thread of willingness and desire (over time and with trust) to engage with and work together, an identifying of and consolidation of individual and community strengths, and an ever-increasing appreciation and gratitude for the power of community. It is, as part of all these ‘threads,’ that our role takes us and offers opportunities for us to assist in Growing Resilient Communities.”
However, there is still much to do. Ongoing, consistent, and trusted support is essential, and this cannot occur without the investment of long-term funding. Just as individuals have a unique response to change and loss, so too do communities and we need to be ready and available when they need support. This is how we will build connection and strong relationships, and how we can continue to grow resilient communities.