Ongoing care for fire-affected communities

7 Mar 2021 by Rev Andrew Smith in: Letters, Thoughts, News

Building capacity for ongoing care in fire affected communities

In late January last 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 to what was heard 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.

Since October last year the courses have been hitting 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 recently is in the Bega church buildings. Judy Grasby from Tathra Uniting Church participated in the training and tells about it here:


“Lifeline South Coast conducted training in Bega (4 courses) over 2 days in February. I attended Psychological First Aid, Accidental Counsellor & DV-Aware. People from Tathra UC and a number of other agencies and interested individuals in the Bega area attended.

It provided a good opportunity as a local church to serve our community in this way and to connect with people in the community as we trained together. It was also a good opportunity to be better equipped to support people in times of crisis – whether fire recovery related or other life events.

While I have background in counselling / trauma support in my work life, I’ve now been retired for a number of years. I attended as an opportunity to refresh my awareness of responding to someone in distress / crisis in a ‘first aid’ support way rather than an intentional ‘counselling space’.

For me the key message was listen … listen … listen – giving space for people to express what may be happening in their life, to NOT be trying to solve their ‘problem’ but to help a person to identify their next steps, if relevant. 

Early in the following week, I was in conversation with a person as she was setting up for a community group which uses the Bega church property and found myself with an opportunity to put into practice the training from the Lifeline courses: to listen openly and give space for this person to express the feelings she was managing following the recent news of a person’s suicide. 

Giving her the opportunity to say what was relevant to her at that time was valued and a help for her to then be able to focus on the task she had before her in her work role at that time.” 

Rev Andrew Smith
Presbytery Minister – Congregation Futures
Canberra Region Presbytery
Uniting Church in Australia
0437 011 338