17 November 2015
Lieut Sarah Eldridge and her worker, Eliza (nicknamed ‘Do a lot’) Owen, are crucial figures for the youth of Healesville. As the bushfire season lurches into focus, Sarah explains, ‘even for kids who didn’t lose someone in the fires, there is vicarious trauma.
‘A lot of those we work with were eight or nine years old when the fires hit in 2009. Now, when a hot day hits us, and the winds blow, Healesville becomes a ghost town – they get out of the place.’
Leaving geographically, however, isn’t the same as leaving emotionally or spiritually. And it’s in the high schools where PTSD and vicarious trauma are often visible. The Salvos are the only church allowed into the high schools, functioning as quasi-chaplains and friend figures, because ‘we don’t proselytise on the school grounds’.
‘If we field questions about faith from the kids we arrange to meet them outside of school to address them. We have to and choose to separate our “faith stuff” (which motivates our actions) from our school presence, in terms of explicit verbal communication. We openly discuss faith and life issues at “The Lounge”, which provides a safe place for everyone.’
That notion of a safe place is vital, Sarah explains, as ‘we have an exceptionally high rate of self-harm, alcohol and drug abuse, unemployment, relationship breakdowns and restlessness in our young people. The public transport’s not the best, and poverty is high, which brings things to a head.
‘Most youth works in the area report a spike in related issues since the fires. It’s really difficult for youth to get jobs, because of transport issues and the lack of jobs. Our 18-year-olds have extreme difficulties affording and gaining driver’s licenses, recognising that accumulating 1290 hours of driving experience as required is hard enough for kids with two functional parents – that’s a much harder ask for our kids.
‘And while there is a good L2P program acting locally, there is not yet a big buy-in from our kids; it’s a case of “watch this space”, however.’
Trauma is real in Healesville, and it has a hard grip. Sarah cites one fairly recent instance where she talked things though with children who spent five days hiding underground in their folks’ wine cellar. Their dad was out fighting spot fires, and they had the facilities they needed, but the fear factor for those kids? It was huge.
In times of crises, help is offered and faith is proffered. Sarah notes that they have had 11 young people come to faith since July 2015, and the experience is nourishing to them spiritually and emotionally.
Sarah thanks God for supportive people, and for her offsider, Eliza, who started in employment in May 2015 and came to faith as a Christian within her first three weeks. She rates Eliza highly, describing her as ‘the best young youth worker I’ve ever worked with’. Considering Sarah’s substantial experience in the field, over numerous years and in diverse situations, that’s high praise indeed.
Sarah says that God is good, and a source of strength for her, for Eliza and for the children and young people they care for.
Sarah is battling an auto-immune disease.
‘In the midst of all this,’ Sarah smiles, ‘I am at peace. I am content.’ When asked, Sarah agrees that she resonates with the paraphrased words of the apostle Paul: God’s strength is made perfect through her weakness.
That’s the lesson she is imparting in lived days at Healesville. It’s a lesson that the kids are picking up and running with; travelling from fears and memories of flames, to hopes for a future and people and a God who loves them.