Navigating rural community recovery from natural disaster

  • Bright folded Health Wise labelled blankets

Connecting with her community in a new way was a delight for Julie Thompson in her role as a care navigator with the Recover, Adapt, Connect program for HealthWISE working in Stanthorpe, Warwick and Tenterfield in Queensland. Julie found innovative ways to help communities recover from the ongoing effects of the Black Summer Bushfires and other natural disasters, adapt, and connect with one another. 

Reflecting on her work at the end of 2023, Julie said “People often think that you have to recover straight away from a disaster, but recovery takes a long time,” She said that although the Black Summer Bushfires and floods seemed like a long time ago, many people were still in the recovery phase. 

“When it rained or hailed or it looked like there was going to be a fire, the anxiety level for people just sky rocketed. Then I realised, hang on, there is more to recovery than just -yeah, it's gone, it's over.” 

 ‘The whole community reels in the wake of disasters’, she said, “and understanding where they’re coming from and what they need is vital”.  

“Adapting to something different – it becomes your normal – but you never forget the past,” she explained. Connecting with just one person could make all the difference. 

This need for connection was clear for the Stanthorpe Home Education Group, which brings together parents and children that are homeschooling. After meeting in parks from time to time, the COVID-19 pandemic put a damper on their efforts to stay connected. 

“Once it was over and they started meeting again, they wanted somewhere of their own, so they came to us. We assisted to find a place where they could keep their resources and gather together,” Julie said. 

HealthWISE encouraged the group to consider ways they could sustain themselves into the future, so they formed a committee and became an incorporated not-for-profit.

Another unique initiative Julie was excited to support was the first of a series of very successful community swap days held by a Stanthorpe group of women named the Social Queens. The swap days allowed community members to share good quality second hand goods such as clothing, school books and kitchen utensils without any money changing hands.  

In Tenterfield, Julie teamed up with local services to focus on disaster management, food assistance and more. Recognising that a well-stocked pantry with a lot of non-perishables is essential if access to stores is cut off due to a natural disaster, Julie was pleased to help run a food budgeting workshop. Participants learned that despite the challenges of a high cost of living, they could cook several meals for less than $30.

The Warwick community was heavily affected by flooding in 2022, and Julie found many felt forgotten. Working closely with the local council and Tackling Regional Adversity Through Connected Communities (TRACC) program, she visited many places to share information on supports that were available and refer locals on to services that could help. 

HealthWISE supported a local group called Weight Crunchers to learn more about preparing fresh and healthy meals by funding a series of workshops with Valerie Pearson from Green Living Australia. With a focus on connection, Julie was also pleased to support a yearning circle – a network for locals experiencing mental ill health which explored healing through art.  

Although the communities continue to face natural disasters, with more bushfires towards the end of 2023, Julie was proud to see how well prepared they had become.   

“Nobody in the community  went into panic mode,” she said. “I think our program has certainly been able to educate the community and show them another way.” 

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