Building Capacity - Fire Affected Communities

18 Oct 2020 by Rev Andrew Smith in: Letters, Thoughts, News

Building capacity for ongoing care in fire affected communities

From Rev Andrew Smith
Presbytery Minister - Congregation Futures

In late January this year Synod and Presbytery leaders visited fire affected congregations and communities on the South Coast of our Presbytery. The visit was intended simply to listen to people talk, and without presuming to know what it was that people wanted or needed, to provide a listening ear, to know they are loved and to see what could be done to assist, and support them in the care of their fire affected communities.

Part of what was heard included the need for the establishment of ongoing debriefing, psychological first aid and intentional pastoral and psychological support of people in key leadership positions, including first responders, ministers, lay leaders and other members of the UC who acted as first responders during and in the aftermath of the bushfires. This could then be augmented by the provision of timely workshops, seminars or meetings, open to the public and to first responders and church elders, that could offer support in dealing with domestic violence, listening skills, psychological first aid, grief, mourning and loss, creative art and music (in trauma), trauma awareness and self-care, to further empower the community as they deal with the emotional, relational and psychological complexities that the bushfire aftermath brings.  

In response our Presbytery sought funding for training courses to equip locals to provide further care for each other. Through Uniting $10,000 was received from the Target Bushfire Appeal, and we also received $47,000 from the UCA Assembly’s Natural Disaster Relief Fund. The funding has been directed to Lifeline South Coast to deliver training to fire affected communities in our Presbytery and the Illawarra Presbytery. The training includes courses in Psychological First Aid, QPR (Question, Persuade, and Refer — the 3 simple steps anyone can learn to help save a life from suicide), Accidental Counsellor Foundations and Domestic Violence Response Training.

This training is open to all and is especially beneficial in building capacity to care for others. UC congregations in fire affected areas promote the training courses to UC members, community volunteers in UC ministries, and their contacts into the local communities, eg Rotary, Surf Clubs, local hairdressers and other community groups. Lifeline South Coast also promotes the courses through their networks in the areas.

In recent weeks, the courses have begun to hit the ground with training being given online through zoom, and also face to face in church buildings. One of the places the training has been happening is Eurobodalla Uniting Church in the church buildings at Batemans Bay. Rev Duncan McDiarmid said that the first three courses were a great success. QPR and Psychological First Aid were booked out. Domestic and Family Violence Response training was well attended.

A variety of community organisations and special interest group came to the training from a range of locations from Bega in the south through to Ulladulla. About a third of the attendees were from the Eurobodalla Uniting Church at Moruya and Batemans Bay. 

The material covered in the courses was as an introduction and served as a community awareness raising event. It also served to empower those attending with the task of demystifying and removing taboos from each of the topics covered: mental health, suicide and Domestic and Family Violence, within their contact range of the community. The trainers from Lifeline South Coast spent time toward the end of each session emphasising the need for self-care following the vulnerabilities that may have been exposed in attending such courses. The trainers were very competent and led the sessions engendering great engagement. They were appreciative of the facilities and the support they received in running the sessions, especially the relatively new audio-visual system in the worship space that was easy to use and delivered great sound and visuals.

The National Disaster Recovery Officer, Rev Dr Stephen Robinson, was also part of the visit to fire affected areas on the South Coast in late January this year. Part of his response to hearing the need for training was to secure funding for the “Good Grief” training course “Seasons for Growth” that was recently delivered for the Bega Valley area. It is an innovative, evidence-based change, loss and grief education program that draws on the metaphor of the seasons to understand the experience of grief. It builds the knowledge and skills necessary to strengthen social and emotional wellbeing following significant loss by:

  • Exploring the impact of change and loss
  • Learning about effective ways to respond and adapt

Participants learn that they are not alone in their experience of change, loss and grief, and are able to build their communication, decision making and problem-solving skills within the context of a safe and supportive peer group learning environment.

Preparation is also under way with Rev Miriam Parker-Lacey to make available the “Mental Health Matters” course produced by Uniting. While some forms of mental illness, like depression and anxiety, have become better understood and those who are experiencing this have received better acceptance and compassion from the community, this is not so for other forms of mental illness. Mental Health Matters is a 3-hour course that helps local congregations contribute to supporting people with mental health problems. We have much to offer in Gospel values, to the welfare, acceptance and quest for justice.

So far two trial courses have been offered with Tuggeranong and City Uniting Churches to assist with converting the course to online format for delivery via zoom. Participants have greatly valued the extensive knowledge and experience that Miriam brings to the course. It is an introductory course that affirms what participants already know and helps them know the areas where they can build their understanding, and how they can get further information.

Mental Health Matters, Seasons of Growth and the Lifeline South Coast courses and are all terrific resources that are being made available to help build capacity in the fire affected communities for ongoing care of each other. It is wonderful that our congregations are involved in supporting their local communities in these ways.