Heartbreak, resilience and humanity at its best
Editorial written by Elders for the Summer 2020/2021 Seasons Magazine.
The Black Summer bushfires brought devastation to the land, the animals and the people we at Elders love. Elders area manager Colin Lane is responsible for Gippsland, Victoria, and witnessed the heartbreak and also the incredible resilience of his community.
“You have an emotional connection with these people. You see them hurting and struggling and you want to help,” Colin says.
“It’s a very emotional and overwhelming time, but I’ve never seen so much generosity.”
Once the fires had eased throughout Gippsland, the team at Elders Bairnsdale moved to provide immediate fodder relief and started working with BlazeAid to supply, deliver, build and provide advice on fencing.
They arranged the free loan and running of two new tractors and set up fencing training for helpers and volunteers. They also began raising over $25,000 of relief funds for distressed clients.
The Elders Bairnsdale team spent countless days writing grant applications to minimise the burden of paperwork on clients already dealing with the trauma of fighting fires or caring for properties and stock.
Over the NSW border, the Tumut, Gundagai and Adelong branches were tending to their own communities.
“All the local Elders staff were out there, helping one way or another, delivering fodder, urgent supplies and opening the branch no matter when it was needed,” says Hannah Speers, an operations specialist from Elders’ Adelong branch.
“We had support from Elders people who turned out from Wagga Wagga, Cootamundra, St Arnaud and even as far away as Hamilton and Ballarat.”
Hannah was instrumental in the setup of a BlazeAid camp, which trained and fed up to 100 volunteers a night. Hannah also helped instigate a donation scheme with the Tumut Community Foundation in conjunction with the Bendigo Bank to benefit the Dunns Road bushfire victims.
Donations presented to Elders were redirected to this fund and gift vouchers handed out to members of the community affected by the bushfire to be used in local businesses.
Used in the town, the vouchers stimulated local business while helping those affected. The Tumut community raised over $200,000 for the cause and staff from nearby branches pitched in to help.
Although hard, Hannah says, these times prove the strength of rural communities.
“The bushfires have shown us the true meaning and power of the rural network as a whole,” she says.
“Everyone is in it together with no ulterior motives other than to help one another get through a difficult time and to fight together.”
One of Hannah’s Adelong colleagues, David Crooks, embodies this ethos, fighting fires for four weeks during the initial crisis, and then continuing to help, seven days a week for months, to assist clients rebuild. David describes the trauma of seeing his community in so much pain and watching friends and clients experience extensive losses.
“We’ve been holding the hands of grown men crying after having to shoot their livestock,” David says.
“We would have 130 farmers who have lost pretty much everything, needing to talk and needing some support. It became our job to show compassion at the most traumatic time.” But such pain forges strength.
“There are still scars but it has really created an incredible bond with clients because other people can’t understand what you’ve been through together,” David says.
“Our clients are our friends. Their emotional and mental wellbeing is our priority.”
“This year has really cemented our shop, and the people in our shop, as being integral to the community.”
This sentiment is echoed in north-east Victoria, where nearly half-a-million hectares of forestry, farmland and private estates were destroyed. Elders Albury Branch Manager Tony Killalea says the sheer magnitude of the fires required a comprehensive community effort to get people back on their feet, but that everyone banded together.
“In the end, this tragedy has enhanced friendships and relationships,” Tony says. “They (Elders staff) are doing it for their friends, not just their clients.”
In the country’s south, Kangaroo Island has been affected in a similar way, with more than a third of the island destroyed. Branch manager Marty Kay says it has been all-hands-on-deck to rebuild, welcoming Elders livestock agents from across South Australia to the island to assist with the ongoing job of fencing.
“Our biggest focus has been to help people affected get back into production, mainly for their mental health, so they’ve got a job to focus on each day and a structure that can begin to restore some sense of normality to their lives,” Marty says.
For Elders as a business, and our people on the ground, the focus now is dealing with the aftermath of such trauma with mental health support and counselling for post-traumatic stress. But the feeling is one of optimism – as it often is in rural communities – and a keenness to get on with the job of supporting one another to dust off and get back up.
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