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Thursday, 04 August 2011 05:03

The courage of Kinglake

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Two years ago, on 7 February 2009, the Black Saturday bushfires ravaged large areas of Victoria, including the communities of the beautiful Kinglake Ranges in the heart of the Murrindindi Shire.

On Black Saturday in Murrindindi Shire alone, 106 people perished, 1397 homes were destroyed and 40 per cent of the Shire burned, including enough rural fencing to stretch from Melbourne to Perth.

Lives and properties were devastated. And they continue to suffer the ravages of those fires. People from the cities often ask, 'are they back to normal yet?' - a question that variously hurts, enrages, saddens and further isolates those whose lives can, and will, never be the same again.

The physical environment, previously so lush and beautiful, is still blackened and forever changed. Faces in the streets tell the stories of loved ones and friends (not one or two, but for many, dozens) who perished that day, of friends and family moved away because they cannot bear the pain of constant memories, and the ongoing struggle to rebuild homes (many - too many - are still living in sheds and caravans). The stress is immense and inescapable.

Black Saturday left its imprint not just on the lives of adults, but also on the little people - adolescents and small children. Many are creating a life that is bearable and reflective of gradual recovery towards a 'new normal'. For others - too many - the present is still marked by intense grief and severe posttraumatic stress.

For the last 19 months I have had the privilege of ministering in Kinglake as a provider of specialist trauma and psychological services through Mitchell Community Health Service.

In collaboration with other psychologists, social workers, GPs and community workers, we have immersed ourselves in the needs of the community. We have been providing care for the men, women and children who still suffer from the terrible and indelible impact of terrifying threat to life, unbearable grief and the profoundly stressful struggle to survive.

This ministry, for me, has entailed hundreds of counselling sessions with adults and tiny people, group gatherings for young mums, parenting after bushfire groups, as well as support of the professional community through professional supervision and professional development programs.

At the end of February I concluded this ministry in Kinglake.

I have come to know many, many people well, personally and professionally. Some I have met only in passing over coffee or in the street. Others I have never met, but I feel I've come to know just a little, as I've driven each day past the various stages of their rebuilding their properties and their lives.

I cannot adequately convey what a profound privilege it has been to serve in a post-disaster community. I have been inspired, challenged and changed for having been on the Kinglake Range. I look with admiration at people's courage and determination, and the strength of the human spirit evidenced over and over again.

It has been said that, in adversity, we stand either to be totally overwhelmed and defeated, or to be transformed. I salute the 'Kinglake Rangers' choice and struggle for transformation. There are surely many challenges ahead; as such a tragedy leaves an indelible mark. However, it is my wish and prayer for individuals and their families, that in the rebuilding, their persons, their lives and their homes, will be infused with new joys, new optimism and new peace.

And I pray that Australians in general can remain open to those who suffer in disasters such as Black Saturday, with the understanding that lives were changed forever. Just as the trees are at long last sprouting new growth, so too, I pray, will the lives of the men, women and children who survived Black Saturday, and the disasters that have since occurred.

Pathways, April 2011

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"Wonderful work Colleen - well done"
- Therese Power RSM, 15-04-2011

"May our God continue to send people like you to the place of 'hurting' to be their sustenance till all is well again!"
- Maria Goretti ssj..Tasmania, 16-04-2011

"I am sure the Holy Spirit was working through you Colleen while at Kinglake. He will stay with you in the next stage of your ministry. "
- Paul Brennan, 20-04-2011