Skip to main content

Stormbirds lightening the weight of bushfire trauma for southern NSW schoolchildren

25 November 2020

It’s been a testing time for communities in southern New South Wales who are still reeling from the onslaught of a series of natural disasters 12 months ago, closely followed by a global pandemic. Children and young people have been deeply impacted by the loss of family members, friends, houses, pets and livestock, and their experiences are often compounded by ongoing financial and mental stress which can have a devastating effect on family life.

The changes and losses that children experience can be traumatic and complex and their fears and emotions need to be sensitively and appropriately addressed. Stormbirds is an innovative early intervention education program that supports children and young people in south-eastern New South Wales to learn to identify and respond to significant life events and disasters. Developed by The MacKillop Institute and Southern Cross University, Stormbirds helps children and families to understand the effects of change, loss and grief while moving forward through building resilience and the ability to deal with life-changing events.

One of the first schools in the region to start Stormbirds is St. Joseph’s Primary School, Bombala, where Literacy Support teacher Gillian Forrester has watched how the program has helped kids begin to express how they are feeling.

“I worked with a group of students who all had different experiences to talk through. Several students were greatly impacted by the fires and have continued to experience difficulties.

“Taking part in Stormbirds, where they heard other children talk about their own experiences, helped our students begin to process their loss. They started to understand that they’ve gone through a shared experience and that they’re not alone in dealing with the weight of what happened due to the bushfires.

“I am confident that as they work through Stormbirds, learning how change is part of life and finding out how to accept and grow through challenges, it will help them recover from this experience. The program teaches them that when feeling big emotions, the practice of identifying helpful actions like walking the dog, talking to Mum and Dad, or playing with their brothers and sisters, helps their emotional wellbeing in general,” added Gillian.

Funding from nib foundation will enable Stormbirds to be rolled out to 32 schools in the region helping children to learn the necessary skills and be provided with the tools to cope in the lead up to Christmas and the anniversary of the 2019 bushfires.

“It’s been almost one year since the devastating bushfires tore through our beautiful countryside, with the South Coast being one of the worst affected communities. As a child, to see your home and that of your friends’ and family damaged by fire can be frightening and take a toll on one’s health and wellbeing,” nib foundation Executive Officer, Amy Tribe said.

“While the Christmas period is meant to be an exciting time for kids, this year it will also be an unfortunate reminder of the bushfires. The release of the Stormbirds program is a timely opportunity to support those kids struggling during this period, allowing them to learn and practice effective coping strategies that they can use every day to boost their mental health and wellbeing,” she added.

The Stormbirds program was developed following the 2009 Black Saturday fires In Victoria. Program Manager, Fiona McCallum says it’s essential that children are supported with a safe space and opportunity to talk about their experience and those of their families and communities.

“In disaster and trauma events, it is common for individuals and communities to experience multiple and ongoing changes and losses, including those that relate to our basic needs such as safety, shelter and water. These additional losses add to the complexity of the initial disaster event and it can be a long time before the normal routine of life settles.

“COVID-19 has added further layers of complexity and concern, delaying the recovery period. It is important to acknowledge that many parents and professionals supporting children in the bushfire-impacted communities have experienced the traumatic events themselves. Stormbirds provides additional information and supports to them in these roles to ensure their wellbeing is also cared for.

Stormbirds gives children the space to share their experiences of change and loss, understand they are not alone and learn the skills to adapt and recover. These are skills that will equip them to cope with change throughout their lifetime and it’s a positive approach to building self-esteem and confidence for these children who have had to live through a year of pandemic and natural disasters.”

More than 900 children will take part in Stormbirds throughout southern NSW.