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Stormbirds: Delivering tailored support to children affected by bushfires

The bushfires across New South Wales, South Australia and Victoria are unprecedented. The changes and losses experienced as a result of a natural disaster can be traumatic, complex and ongoing. Research following the Black Saturday fires in Victoria reveal that 5 years on, communities are still suffering mental health concerns at rates twice the general population.

Children and young people are particularly vulnerable. Exposure to disaster events effects their mental health can impact their educational outcomes both in the short and longer-term. Evidence suggests that most children will cope effectively following a disaster given support, time and the appropriate intervention.

MacKillop Family Services delivers Stormbirds, an early intervention education program that provides tailored support to children and young people affected by natural disasters. Developed in 2009 in response to the Black Saturday Bushfires in Victoria, Stormbirds has supported 18 regional communities following bushfires in Victoria, NSW, SA, WA and QLD cyclones and floods and in Christchurch, New Zealand, following the earthquakes - in excess of 1000 children participated in the program in Christchurch alone.

Stormbirds is embedded in the foundational principles of the Seasons for Growth evidence-based loss and grief program, which relies on research, strategies and techniques consistent with high quality psychosocial education. Seasons for Growth has been delivered by local community facilitators to over 300,000 children and young people in Australia and internationally to support their wellbeing following loss and grief experiences.

The program invites children and young people to learn and practice ways of identifying and responding to significant life events and disasters, with an emphasis on understanding the effects of change, loss and grief. Professionals working in schools and local agencies are trained and supported by MacKillop to deliver the 4-session program directly to small groups of 4-7 children and young people.

Stormbirds has tailored age-appropriate program levels helping children and young people to develop their skills to communicate, make decisions and problem solve. This provides children and young people with the skills to manage and overcome their trauma and builds their resilience to cope in the likely event of tough times ahead in their communities.

I’ve learned that even when stuff gets hard you’ve still got people to look after you.

– Primary student, Christchurch, New Zealand

A critical element of the program is that it is delivered by community leaders, educational and health professionals based in the community. This builds resilience within the community; capacity for the community to support each other; and the infrastructure and process for these leaders to identify where additional intervention is required and provide long-term support to affected children and young people. The program also provides parents with information and knowledge to support them to help their children as they both recover from the experience of the natural disaster and the associated loss and grief.

Stormbirds provides a safe space for children and young people to give a voice to their experiences and learn appropriate knowledge, skills and attitudes to understand and manage the changes brought about by a natural disaster. Essentially, the program allows them to connect, communicate and understand they are not alone.

Since December 2019, we have been responding to the bushfire crisis, supporting in excess of 30 communities with emergency resources and information, with the goal to partner with local schools and agencies to deliver Stormbirds as an immediate response and Seasons for Growth as a long-term recovery program.

MacKillop Family Services is appealing for financial generosity from the community, corporate and government bodies to fund the delivery of these programs in fire-affected communities. You can support our bushfire appeal by donating on the link below.

To discuss funding the delivery of Stormbirds in a fire affected community, please contact Louise Hall at Louise.Hall@goodgrief.org.au.