Ashleigh remembers the student talking about the wagtail during a session of Stormbirds, The MacKillop Institute’s natural disasters program that helps communities to emotionally recover following a significant event, like a bushfire. For the 45 students attending the Omeo Primary School, Stormbirds offered the opportunity to come together and speak of their personal experiences in facing the catastrophic fires that decimated the region throughout the 2019/20 summer.
“Some students described being evacuated by helicopters from the town’s local sports oval, while others talked about leaving the area with their families and escaping to safer surrounds,” said Ashleigh, who is the school’s Wellbeing Companion. “Some students love nature and animals, therefore seeing the wagtail was a sign that life was returning to normal.”
Thanks to funding from UNICEF Australia, Ashleigh was one of a team of school educators and community professionals across the East Gippsland region to be trained in Stormbirds, providing them with the skills to support young people affected by the fires. The program offers a safe space in which students talk about what they had experienced, allowing them to connect, communicate and understand they were not alone in what they had all been through.
Since 2009, the program has supported communities throughout Australia and New Zealand that have been impacted by natural disasters. Even today, Stormbirds continues to be delivered throughout NSW and Victoria to communities affected by the 2019/20 bushfires.
Omeo residents understand tough times: when the bushfires hit, the region had been in drought for many years. Barely a month after the fires were contained, COVID-19 restrictions were announced, sending the town’s students into a virtual classroom and remote learning.
When the opportunity to undertake Stormbirds training came up, Ashleigh said the school was enthusiastic, particularly with the fires’ 12-month anniversary looming.
“The feedback we received from parents indicated the kids had appeared to cope well with the fires,” said Ashleigh. While older students openly talked about how the event affected them, younger ones didn’t appear to dwell on what had happened. However, despite appearing unscathed, Ashleigh said a hot windy day, or smoke smelt from a local burn-off last summer did cause anxiety among some. “It was interesting to see the fires still played on their mind even though I hadn’t seen anything in their behaviour to indicate they were concerned by what had happened.”
Despite the fires occurring over a year earlier, Ashleigh said students appreciated the opportunity Stormbirds gave them to talk, to be listened to and to be told it was okay to have feelings of sadness or anger. “The kids really enjoyed the program’s small group gatherings – it offered the chance to share things with only a few others.”
After experiencing the benefits of Stormbirds, Ashleigh said she was now keen to undertake training in its complementary program, Seasons for Growth, which deals with loss and grief: “As a more generalised program for loss and grief, I can see Seasons really benefiting the students and helping them manage a broad range of issues from family breakdown to moving home.”