Two weeks before Black Saturday I enjoyed a holiday in Mallacoota. It was a great time that has given me many wonderful memories and one not so wonderful one..
Driving back from that holiday I passed through a little town where a fire had ripped through. I remember looking at the remains of several houses and I wondered what had become of those people. Where were they living and how do you recover from something as enormous as losing everything that you owned?
Two weeks later I got to find out first hand when my own house burnt down in the Black Saturday bushfires, and while it took me several months to properly reach out for help, I couldn't stop thinking about those houses I had seen that day.
I found the response to Black Saturday quite overwhelming and when I finally went looking for help it was there. I remember thinking that if your home was ever going to burn down, Black Saturday was the day it should happen. That support was there for me, but who was looking after those people who lost their homes two weeks earlier? There was no national outpouring for them.
The Red Cross and Salvation Army have received a lot of criticism for allegedly keeping most of the money that has been donated to them. The fact is that they haven't, but this 'idea' has gained a lot of traction and angered a lot of people, so I thought it might be worthwhile to share my own experience with both of these organisations. My hope is to give a little perspective on why all of the money is not handed over immediately.
Following Black Saturday it was around three months before I worked up the courage to properly ask for help, and even then I had to be tricked into it. I'm glad it happened because it changed my life, but I know of people who took years to seek help. And some people never sought it at all.
My first attempt at looking for assistance happened a few weeks after the fires began. My local hall had been set up as a community centre distributing food and clothes to those in need. I went in looking for gloves to sort through the remains of my home. There were a lot of people in the hall and I wondered how so many could have been affected by the fires in my little hamlet. I found the gloves I needed and put them on a small pile in front of me. I then watched as an elderly lady walked up and took the gloves from my pile. They couldn't have fit her. I was exhausted after weeks of adrenaline overload and even though I was furious, I said nothing. I didn't know this lady directly but I knew where she lived and I knew that her property had been untouched.. And so that was that. I walked out and decided I didn't need help from anyone.
Three months later I was in a salvos store looking to buy some shirts to wear for work. The lady serving behind the counter must have noticed something strange about me and she began to pry. I didn't want to talk to her. I just wanted some cheap shirts but she kept me in the store with aimless conversation interspersed with fruitless searches out back for much better 'non-existent' shirts.
I didn't know it but she had made a phone call and was buying time for help to arrive. Help did arrive in the form of Major Richard Price and it was in that little Salvation Army shop's back office that I was finally given the kind of support I needed to confront the enormity of what had happened. It was raw and extremely difficult but the road to recovery had begun and it had started months after my home had burned down.
After that watershed moment, I received ongoing assistance from both the Salvation Army and Red Cross. Working alongside many other smaller relief organisations, they were all instrumental in financial and material support as well as helping me begin this social enterprise. I couldn't have done it without any of them and I still found myself leaning on them years down the track.
My point is that recovery does not happen overnight. It will take years for those who have lost or are yet to lose everything in the future. Our emergency relief organisations will be on the front lines long before our governments react and they will still be on the front lines long after all of the attention has moved on to the next disaster...
And they will be there too.