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Healesville's still healing

Healesville fire danger signs
17 November 2015

As you drive into Healesville you may notice a few things that prompt concerns. Near a turn off for Kinglake, the ‘Welcome to Healesville’ sign is choked with grass and weeds.

The blue sky’s dispensing a strong, glorious dose of sunshine. It’s the beginning of a bushfire season that has pundits worried already, yet the nearest fire threat level signage is at Coldstream.

The other, stronger observation is the smell of smoke that hangs heavy in the air, penetrating your air con. You wind the window down and breathe deeply, hoping it’s just a ‘burn off’. Not that burn offs are popular at present. The week before this trip a controlled fire by the CFA in the Macedon ranges got away from them, threatening hundreds of properties and destroying a couple. At that stage of proceedings there were more than a hundred fires burning across Victoria.

Burn offs are an essential activity that is not without risk; this triggers responses. You pull over before the bridge into the main drag, having found why your nostrils are wrinkled in memory. You watch the bulldozers and blokes producing a cloudy white pall of smoke off a small burn. As said, it’s a sensible and necessary measure. But as well as the risk, burnoffs are not without an emotional cost.

The 2009 bushfires took their toll on this community and numerous other towns and hamlets. Healesville’s little sister, Marysville, was razed to the ground. As previously noted in e-connect, ‘It’s the work of a moment to offer a platitude or express solidarity; but to help change a life and redeem a situation takes decades’.   www.sarmy.org.au/en/Social/eConnect/Research/Hard-yards

Having co-located ‘the best coffee within cooee’, at Essenza, I ask local Salvo Lieut Sarah Eldridge how people are reacting on a warm day when there are flames out and about.

‘Everyone has the CFA “fire ready” app on their mobiles and devices, and there are still PTSD symptoms to be seen when the app goes off.’ As if to illustrate the point, another community worker greets Sarah as she enters and mentions that she has to sit inside – she can’t sit outside and breathe in the smoke because of the memories evoked.

Sarah’s role, and that of her helpers, staff, mates and charges, is still developing.* But when the smell of smoke is in the air, she says, it’s clear that Healesville is still healing. Sarah has previously told e-connect that psychiatrists and psychologists have told us that ‘it’s a 10-year cycle to recover from the impact of such a horrendous natural disaster’.  www.sarmy.org.au/en/Social/eConnect/Development/-Trauma-time-and-the-Salvos

‘The responses to smoke shows you that some people have moved on and think everyone should be over 2009 by now, and that others are still deeply affected. When you talks with them, you realise some people have a deep-seated and understandable fear about this time of year. We smell the CFA burnoffs and it takes people back.

‘In April 2014 there was a fire and people’s responses were telling. My fire plan is to get out of Dodge asap, as the Salvos can get you back in and redeploy you as needed, but if you are behind firelines you’re stuck. But I was on autopilot, and I headed straight to Healesville High School to be there for the kids. It was intense. It made me see how real the threat of fires is for people; three-quarters of the parents rocked up to try to pick up their kids, creating a massive bottleneck. But the school handled it exceptionally well.’

Sarah recognises the ‘chicken and egg’ nature of the trauma in the young people she ministers to; a lot of the hurt and pain pre-existed before the 2009 fires, and was further amplified by them. Causal or amplifying; regardless, pain is pain.

In officership, as in life, timing and focus are both skills and ‘musts’. Sarah has regular, solid contact with 75-100 children each week. Some receive mentoring, some hang out at the lunchtime home group (‘for kids who can find it difficult to connect with their mainstream peers’), which serves as a feeder group into high school engagement.

She says the Anya group* is populated by girls who need to know they are valued for who they are, and for ‘their worth in Christ’. The faith-based equipping sessions are given over to helping girls from broken homes, girls who are experiencing or recovering from substance misuse, drug abuse, sexual molestation and self-harm.

Let’s be clear; this is not a few of the girls in the Anya group. It’s all of them, tackling one or several of these issues

Sarah, known to the girls as ‘Mum’ or ‘Mumma Sare’, started Anya in July 2015. Since then she’s taken three of the girls through the additional trauma of STD and pregnancy testing. The children she cares for have known betrayal and abuse.

‘We encourage our girls to journal their experiences, and as some of our girls have self-harm issues we insist on discreetly checking their wounds and teach them health maintenance. We call them on the phone, encourage them instead of cutting or other forms of self-harm to flick themselves with an elastic band around their wrists, as a means of distraction from other measures.

* As well as working with approximately 500 kids at Healesville High and at Lilydale High, and hosting a ‘gamer’ group at ‘The Lounge’, Sarah runs a cell group for girls and young women names ‘Anya’, which means ‘highly favoured’. This is a continuation of earlier work Sarah has undertaken with troubled young women who experience a ‘good deal of confusion between what they saw as empowerment, which was in some cases really exploitation. A lot of girls think they are making good choice in forming and maintaining sexual relationships with older boys and older men in the community, but later they come to realise they, or others, were just being used in unequal relationships, where power and money were used to dominate them.’  www.eConnect/Research/People-of-worth
See the next article, ‘Working through pain’