Rural communities across the country have been rocked by bushfires, COVID-19 and devastating floods in the space of just three years. This litany of disasters has had significant economic, social and emotional impacts, with the memory of the bushfires reignited so quickly with the smell of smoke.
The Principal of Rollands Plains Upper Public School, Katie Smith, knows how devastating the rolling disasters of fire, COVID-19 and flood have been on the close-knit community. Eighteen months after the fires, the farmer neighbouring the school did some backburning. Some of the school’s children became frantic, as the smell of smoke brought back memories of the bushfires. Ms Smith then realised how long-lasting the impact of disasters can be. Parents are often overwhelmed by the recovery process, the damage to buildings and the impact on their economic livelihoods. The children have been anxious and hypervigilant. This has been reflected in changed behaviour.
Parents are tasked with responding to the physical and economic damage caused by disasters. Sometimes, this leaves limited space for the children to articulate how they feel after such cataclysmic events. As sensory sponges, children can see that their parents are worried, but may find it challenging to express how fearful they are.
In the small community of Rollands Plains Upper, the school – made up of just 27 students – is the heart of the region. When children get off the school bus, regardless of what has happened at home, they arrive at a familiar place, a place of routine and safety. To ensure that the school remained a safe hub, Ms Smith realised they needed a program that would encourage the children to express their emotions and give them a common language they can use. And so, the Stormbirds program was introduced to her school.
Stormbirds is an Australian evidence-based and trauma-informed natural disaster response program that supports children and young people. It provides an opportunity for them to look at how natural disasters have impacted them and their family’s lives. Stormbirds provides a framework for children and their teachers to talk about anxieties and emotions. Children realise they’re not alone in feeling scared after hearing thunder or smelling smoke.
As Ms Smith said, ‘When we give the kids the right support, they fly. If something triggers their worried feelings, they know where to go and they know they are not alone.’
The Rural Aid team, who work closely with farming families, have also adopted the Stormbirds program as they recognise the ongoing cumulative effects of disaster-related stressors, and the resulting impacts on the children’s wellbeing, school attendance and attainment.
Rural Aid is well-placed to mobilise and respond to disasters when and where needs arise. They have 15 counsellors trained in the program, who most recently have been on the ground responding to the floods across New South Wales and Queensland. Through Stormbirds, they will work in partnership to support schools with the provision of a safe space for the children to talk about their emotions, supporting the children’s capacity to navigate the changes they have experienced and the resulting grief.
Trauma from consecutive disasters is community wide. Stormbirds provides a process to normalise feelings of anxiety and reduces the isolation for children. By building the capacity of professionals in local schools and organisations to deliver programs like Stormbirds, we develop local expertise and provide a safe space for children to respond to their experience of disasters.
You can find more information about the Stormbirds program here: www.mackillopinstitute.org.au/programs/stormbirds