The therapist in my van: From Brisbane to Wachoupe: A bush-fire Recovery Effort Part 1/2 - Character Care
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The therapist in my van: From Brisbane to Wachoupe: A bush-fire Recovery Effort Part 1/2

The therapist in my van: From Brisbane to Wachoupe: A bush-fire Recovery Effort Part 1/2

In late 2019 and into early 2020, hundreds, if not thousands of fires had broken out across Australia. At the time of this blog, fires are still burning across the nation with areas in New South Wales facing more fires and weather to come. Character Care, in partnership with LifeWorks by Morneau Shepell, visited fire affected areas. In September 2019 we sent two therapists to Stanthorpe Qld and we have now just returned from rural NSW to provide therapeutic support to the local communities in affected areas. We were equipped with an RV to provide a space for people to chat about anything they felt might be helpful in the next stage of their recovery. We were mobile and self-sustaining, so we did not create any extra load on the communities. Tarini (counsellor) headed from Brisbane to meet with Matt (counsellor) later in the week. Matt started in Sydney and headed south-west in a loop back to Sydney. The intention of this blog is to share the stories of the journey and provide a different view of what is happening in these areas. 

Paulo Cohelo once said, “If you think adventure is dangerous, try routine, it’s lethal.” I’ve never been much of an explorer, not into adventure no, not really, not until I landed my first job straight out of university. That job was exciting, invigorating, because no two weeks were ever the same. So this time, when I was asked if I would be willing to drive across the bush-fire affected communities in New South Wales, opportunity knocked and I answered… And in the words of Robert Frost, “two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and I, I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference…”  The journey began at the crack of dawn, it was about a half four in Brisbane, and a half past five NSW time, as I pulled out of my driveway and headed towards the border I couldn’t help but feel the utter magnitude of what I was about to embark upon. When the new decade began, I made a bucket list, and somewhere on there was a road trip to Sydney… But never had I imagined then that lost in the middle of a new state, among the bushfire ravaged forests, and long winding highways I would find someone I hadn’t really known before, myself..

Day 1: Willawarin

About 521 kilometres from where my journey began, I pulled into the showgrounds at Willawarin, fatigued and sweaty. What I first noticed about the campsite was the sense of togetherness. To my right motor homes were lined up, even here in the dry, sultry heat, far away from their own houses, they had formed their little community. What they had here was a group of people that had given up their creature comforts, and some,  their daily income to come out and help. Volunteers had come from near and far, and they went out every morning, and they built fences where there were no homes, and around stables that had no animals. They met with farmers that had no crops… And to those who walked by, they seemed to have nothing… But even in their nothingness they had something, they had grit, and resilience, compassion and kindness and that was something no one could take away. Marya Hornbacher once said, there is in fact, an incredible freedom in having nothing left to lose.  The fires had taken their homes, and their cars, damaged their properties and taken their stock and it seemed they had nothing else to lose, but they had so much more to gain… 

And as the sun began to drop,I had found out that my accommodation for the night fell through, and I had been left unsettled, I was tired, sweaty and uncertain.. At that moment, all I could think of was getting a good night’s sleep, but as I sit to write this blog, I wonder what that experience would have been like if I was surrounded in a fire affected area.. When I was younger we often played a game where we asked, in a fire what would you take with you? But at that moment when the fire is knocking at your door, I don’t know if the answer was as easy as I once thought it to be… The volunteers at Blaze Aid were welcoming, and took me in for the evening… I was allowed to remain set up under the shade of two large trees, and looking out the window I could see the clouds for days…And as the evening finally settled, we sat down to share in good food, and conversation. The volunteers had told me that Willawarin was hit by the fires nearly 8-9 weeks earlier, and it was then that the need for services like ours were pertinent. In that moment my job was not to support the community, because they felt supported, but there my role was to support those very volunteers that I was sitting across. Sharing in our spaghetti and rhubarb crumble we discussed loss and pain, we discussed what it meant to give up everything, and what the true meaning of nothing was… That night when the volunteers had headed to bed, I pulled up a chair and sat with one of the ladies having a final puff.. It was then that I understood the true magnitude of the nothingness and the truth of their resilience… “These people have lost everything, but they won’t ask for help, they want to go it alone.. But when the men come down and ask us to buy our volunteers a drink, we tell them to go.. And don’t worry about how long, because in that moment, that’s what they needed, and that’s what we can give…” And as I headed into my van, surrounded by fire ravaged communities, that seemed to have nothing, we had each other and that was our everything… And the next morning as I drove away, I knew not who was supporting whom. 

Day 2: Wauchope

The next morning, after a gorgeous pancake breakfast, I packed up the motor home, and as the teams deployed for another day of fencing, I began my journey, this time in the direction of Wauchope. As I drove through the forests on my way to Wauchope i found myself shrouded in blackened forests, a depiction of the fires that had torn through the towns. But every so often I found myself drawn towards a splash of green shrubs, hope, I thought to myself. These communities had been through so much distress in the past few weeks but all was not lost. Although houses were burnt, forests blackened, and animals strewn across the roads as they tried to find shelter from the blaze, these communities had something that we often forget to appreciate, they had hope. Like a phoenix that had risen from the ashes people from far and wide had come together in a true display of humanity. As I pulled into the community show grounds and settled in, I found myself in the presence of the local blaze aid community volunteers. They reported much like Willawarin, the community had been through their worst to date, and now less people came to the show grounds… They were no longer looking for emotional reprieve but more practical support. Although the local community in town had been safe, several members on the outskirts had suffered a grueling loss. Blaze Aid were continuing their journey into helping build fences, and the Army had deployed about 40 soldiers to come out and help.. And once again, I found myself settling into the role of supporting those who supported the community… 

Walking across the show grounds I met local community members at the Men’s shed, the makeshift office space in a safe toilet block served volunteers who were trying to best support the community. Once again I saw stables without horses and paddocks with no cows, but not so long ago, during the fires, one man had a different story to tell… At around 2am one morning, the fires continued to blaze across NSW, for many days people had left their animals at the showgrounds for safety.. But that night, well that morning as he said people came in every direction. The very same ground my motor-home stood on now, was packed like sardines to a can. He reported that he didn’t know what to do, he was physically drained and emotionally exhausted but he continued to go… “People wanted to make sure their animals were taken care of, but there wasn’t much we could do at that hour. We just gave them what they needed.. If they needed a chat or a hug I gave it to them and moved onto the next thing…”  I walked and I talked, and where they could volunteer. They told me stories of struggle, of death and loss, they told of an elderly couple who wouldn’t ask for help even though they were doing it tough… And a young daughter whose father in law died in her arms.. And as the evening came upon us, I said another goodbye, and like the tattoo I hold on my left wrist, I was privileged to watch another community, like a phoenix rise from the ashes again! I guess there was a lot more hope in Wauchope than we first thought… 

*thank you to those who utilized the service and shared their stories and experiences with us. We hope we provided a service that helped in whatever way possible, even if only a small step forward through the ashes of this crisis. My thoughts and wishes are with those who have lost during this event, please take care, and a moment here and there for yourself…

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