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Hard yards

What happens when you lose people in your lives? When people you knew, people you loved, were burned to death? 

How do you deal with that?

If you are in a place like Healseville, with the rebuilding of a community post-bushfires, then the likelihood is that not all coping mechanisms essayed will be healthy, helpful or even halfway to productive for the individuals and those around them.

‘We are seeing a rise in family and domestic violence,’ says Lieut Sarah Eldridge, ‘as well as an increase in family breakdowns, suicide and suicide ideation, and substance abuse. Whether or not that has anything to do with the fires is arguable. However, in my conversations with other workers in town, there appears to be a direct link.’

The upshot is, Sarah explains, is that the damage being done now may impact families for generations. ‘If,’ she counters, ‘we as a community put money into employing skilled, therapeutic practitioners, for five to 10 years, then we’d be in a much better place when these children we are working with are adults themselves.’

Sarah says that some of the best work done by The Salvation Army is happening in schools, where Bushfire recovery youth worker Brad Freind, herself and members of other community organisations are ‘doing the hard yards’.

Young people who lost classmates, teachers, relatives and friends don’t pretend, as some adults do, that the connections aren’t frayed and sparking; that the broken bonds to others aren’t still bleeding. And in a smaller, non-urban community there is no such thing as anonymity. You are known and impacted by those who you see and talk to. You are reminded constantly of those who are no longer there for you.

Also, Sarah explains, the ongoing class action against power companies and the resultant paperwork has ‘meant people are re-experiencing their initial grief again’ and, for some, re-experiencing survivor guilt.

What’s The Salvation Army’s best next step, I ask Sarah – how do we work in a situation where we’ve normally moved on strategically to try to meet the next crisis to hit other communities and sectors?

Sarah silently contemplates the lives of those she meets. Their needs, their burdens, their desires and the ways they do and could treat each other.

‘Our “on the spot cash” made us the charity or church of choice for many people,’ she explains, and that is the positive response to what’s already happened. We were able to ensure people provided instant support.’

Sarah pays tribute to the work of her predecessor, Envoy Graeme Mawson, and his team.

‘Graeme did a great job in fire-affected communities such as Healseville; his work helped so many people and effectively put us on the map as a church and an organisation.

‘My concern, of course, is that we need to continue on that path. Yes, the relief work needs to finish up. But we still need to keep skilled practitioners at work to counter the rises that we are seeing in suicide and substance abuse.’

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.