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Trauma, time and ‘the Salvos’

In the wake of Victoria’s Black Saturday bushfires in 2009, many communities were aided by government and emergency workers, The Salvation Army and other churches and NGOs. The lives of bushfire survivors and bereaved Victorians in Healseville and the surrounding hamlets, such as the obliterated township of Marysville, were and are impacted by those fatal days.

As the town of Healseville observes four years from the fires, e-connect presents a discussion with Healesville’s CO,  Lieut Sarah Eldridge, about the progress of The Salvation Army’s ongoing mission to the children and adults of this resilient community.

Trauma, time and ‘the Salvos’

Lieut Sarah Eldridge, at a youthful age, is already a veteran of welfare work and Salvation Army mission. Her second appointment as a Salvation Army officer saw her taking on the role of facilitating the Army’s work with families and individuals who, as with many other communities in Victoria, have been and are deeply impacted by lost members of their community and, often, a shattered infrastructure.

Now in her second year, Sarah says that the corps is doing its best to ‘engage with the needs of our community beyond the terms of the concluded Salvation Army funding agreements by building relationship and providing pastoral support’.

‘We were blessed to have Jo Ensor,’ she adds, ‘who is one of the best social workers I have ever met and worked with. Her connections are brilliant and she is a compassionate and organised person. Before Jo left, she ensured all of our clients knew that assistance was still available and that I was available for pastoral conversations. We are grateful for Brad Freind's work; we work closely together at the high school.’

It can sometimes take a while to feel a part of smaller country towns, or ‘hills communities’ where generations have grown up and shared their lives, especially in the wake of tragedies. Sarah feels she is close to being accepted as a local.

'It was difficult being the officer who replaced the officer known for his good work during the fires,' Sarah explains. 'Envoy Graeme Mawson became such as part of the fabric of the town that his loss was felt by many people from other welfare agencies and other community members.

'However,' she adds, 'given that I make friends easily and am happy to site and have a coffee with people, I have found the community itself has been incredibly accepting and welcoming.  I have different skill sets than Graeme, and I still struggle at times with a few of the community organisations that Graeme worked with and spent years developing relationships with, but I have no doubt we'll have stronger relationships this year.

'The community itself values The Salvation Army, so much so that if I walk down the street wearing the Red Shield on my T-shirt it can become a three-hour affair, with people stopping me to chat and introduce themselves.'

The fact is that people don’t just wake up a few years after a disaster to discover themselves completely ‘over it’. The Salvation Army publicly committed, in media and numerous public and private conversations, to stay the course with communities, as long as they were needed; Sarah and the Healesville Corps are working to honour that commitment. 

‘My concern,’ she explains, as organisationally The Salvation Army continues to wrap up some operations, ‘is that the Army is pulling out too soon. The shock is over for these communities, yes, and people are starting to move through the grieving process. But many people are only now experiencing the full and lasting impact of the trauma.

The word ‘trauma’, Sarah explains, is not used lightly. ‘Psychiatrists and psychologists are telling us that it’s a 10-year cycle to recover from the impact of such a horrendous natural disaster.’

The Salvos have helped honour the memory of those lost as they perished, entombed, in their cars. Those who died fighting the firestorms or fleeing from them. ‘We have been there with practicalities, like building supplies, food and clothing,’ she adds, ‘but the real and lasting need that we need to focus on now is on helping people move through the ongoing trauma.

‘I am meeting and working with three kinds of traumatised people,’ says Sarah.

‘Firstly, there are some who have coped well - people who may not have lost property or loved ones - but the anniversary, and summer with bushfire conditions, produce vicarious trauma and fear.

'Then there are those who are running on adrenalin until they fall in a heap; they have rebuilt physically, but are still rebuilding emotionally, psychologically and spiritually.

‘And then there are people who are so mired in the trauma and memories that their capacity to make decisions is wrecked.

'Healesville has a corps presence, which is great for those who moved into Healesville or live in Steels Creek, Dixon Creek and Yarra Glen. But the surrounding areas are tough, as our only presence in the towns are through the recovery workers/outreach.