As catastrophic bushfires continue to burn across NSW, Victoria and South Australia, we all share a deep sadness when reflecting on the terrible impact they are having on people, country, wildlife and livestock across Australia. So many of us know friends, colleagues and families who have been directly affected. Collectively, we are all grappling with the extent of the damage, pain and distress that communities have been going through since this unparalleled bushfire season started back in August 2019. It is a season none of us will soon forget.

We know that the fires, and the drought that preceded them are catastrophic, but can the aftermath be the catalyst for change? Can they lead to changes in rhetoric, opinion and action, not only to deal with the effects right now, but to also address the causes? If not, surely an opportunity to secure the future wellbeing and safety of the communities we serve will be lost.

The mark of a community is how it responds to a crisis. We see this time and time again. Will communities bond together, share resources and unite against common opponents – even long after the last flame is doused? So far, the signs are promising.

Alongside so many people across Australia, our staff are going above and beyond to support people and each other in bushfire affected regions and surrounds – even when they themselves and their families are in areas of risk. Some are volunteering on top of their usual work and in some locations our offices have been transformed into evacuation centres.

In Ulladulla, our local team gave up their holidays to open the Youth Centre for stranded families and provided food, beds and care. The centre welcomed an extended family of 16 one night and nine on another. In Bateman’s Bay, a Youth Employment Specialist – after getting in touch with her clients and learning that five of them had lost their homes in the fire – used Facebook to request donations of clothes, food and necessities for clients and their families. She was able to raise enough donations to cover the affected families and delivered it to them in early January.

These are just some of the stories of dedication and community spirit that our people have shown in the face of disaster. We’re standing together with the people and communities who are relying on us. It has been a tough period of time for so many, and our Mission Australia value of compassion and care for our people and communities has undoubtedly shone through.

Sadly, we’ve also seen reports of looting and increases in incidents of domestic violence. We can’t ignore these issues, however uncomfortable the reality makes us. We should reflect on how the effort to rebuild communities can effectively address the full gamut of challenges that have arisen in the aftermath of disaster.

In the past few weeks, we have also seen the many forms that homelessness takes. These past months you will have heard of it, seen it or may have even experienced it yourself. People who are sleeping rough, in cars or emergency shelters. Perhaps even crowding with relatives or staying with strangers. Hoping to be able to safely return home. Sadly, for many this hasn’t been the case.

While Mission Australia is not a disaster relief organisation, we provide vital community services across Australia, providing support to people and families experiencing disadvantage and homelessness. For those who wish to support the immediate relief effort, the most effective way is to give directly to an official disaster relief charity like The Salvation Army, Red Cross, St Vincent De Paul and Anglicare. Our teams on the ground say people should avoid travelling to any affected area with physical items - for their own safety and because it may create storage issues in communities that are already stretched.

As a community and nation, we know there are challenges ahead. In the face of these challenges, we need to ensure we work alongside each other to create hope and opportunity for those who are in greatest need.

Once the fires are extinguished and the drought finally breaks, recovery will take time. As an organisation focussed on reducing homelessness and strengthening communities, we have seen the impact on homelessness and other community services and know there is and will be much work to do to ensure that people are safely and appropriately housed and have the community supports they need.

While our nation is still in the grip of struggle and pain, I personally find it helpful in difficult times like these to focus on the hope that out of the greatest tragedies, new life can be born. Just as natural bush will eventually grow back stronger and healthier, I have every confidence that as we all stand together, in time renewal will replace suffering and hope will replace anguish.

Long after the smoke dissipates, with the power of community, compassion and perseverance, I know we’re all up for the task of turning catastrophe into catalyst.

Photo of James Toomey, CEO of Mission Australia

 

James Toomey
CEO Mission Australia
@jbc_toomey

 

 

Photo credit: Murray Lowe

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Purpose - 'Inspired by Jesus Christ, Mission Australia exists to meet human need and to spread the knowledge of the love of God'