THERE is a remarkable human story playing out at the bushfire evacuation centre at the Huonville Police and Citizens Youth Club (PCYC).
It’s a quiet story that ripples beneath the larger story of the bravery of the firefighters, the tireless efforts of the support workers, and the stoicism of the evacuees.
It’s a story about what connects us as human beings, our natural inclination to look out for each other. Crisis makes it visible but it is always there, this compassion we have for the people we share this place with. And that is what’s at the heart of volunteering.
Walk into the PCYC and it looks like barely controlled chaos; there are people everywhere; there is a play centre and entertainment for kids, people gathering around the noticeboard to get the latest updates, services supporting those who have been displaced, and a very few quiet spots where those who have had a sleepless night can try to get some rest.
Many families have set up camp both inside the centre and in the grounds. At any one time there are 50 cats and 50 dogs being cared for as their owners need to keep their beloved pets close by. At another site at the Ranelagh showgrounds those who have had to evacuate livestock are staying to care for them.
Stay a while in the centre and you begin to notice the small acts of kindness. The local grandmother who takes a cup of tea to the woman sitting on her own. The “old hand” evacuees who’ve been there for five days greeting the new arrivals and showing them around.
You’ll notice local people and businesses dropping in with food, drinks and ice creams as well as the essentials such as new underwear and earplugs. People appear to take the dogs out for a walk. Vets arrive and doctors and pharmacists are in attendance, kids (and adults) are entertained as people offer face painting, outdoor movies, games and activities.
Through the swirl of this activity there is another team at work; the evac centre volunteers. They are tidying, preparing food in the kitchen, restocking supplies, passing on information about fires and road closures, directing visitors and new arrivals, taking calls, handing out bedding and food and toiletries, and connecting people who need help with specialist support staff.
Over the past week this spontaneous village has found a kind of rhythm. You can feel the emotions ebb and flow with every report on the fires. Worry hangs heavily in the room. What the Huon Valley Council has created in this centre is not just a physically safe space but an emotionally safe space, for people who are at their most vulnerable.
There are about 600 people on site and there are 140 volunteers on a rotating roster. They have been vetted, inducted and they have specific jobs. They come mostly from Hobart and surrounds, and particularly from the Huon Valley.
The local football club alone has provided volunteers for nearly every shift. They are highly skilled volunteers and volunteer co-ordinators who have had to learn on the job and together have given many hundreds of hours.
It is a theme of natural disasters that people pay attention when the crisis is happening but tend to forget when the crisis has passed. Recovering from these fires will take a long time. Communities will need to deal with the damage and loss of property, the impact on jobs and families, the destruction to wildlife, and the beautiful, wild places we love that are no longer there.
Recovery needs volunteers too. The fact that hundreds of people are turning up to help and many more have called wanting to know what they can do to help shows just how strong our communities are.
The volunteers at the Huonville PCYC are doing what many thousands more Tasmanians do every day in different ways; they are giving something of themselves, they are volunteering so that others may benefit. It may be simple; just sitting alongside someone, quietly listening to them. That is something we can all do.
Volunteering is a powerful act. It connects us to each other and makes our communities stronger.
Dr Lisa Schimanski is chief executive of Volunteering Tasmania, which has worked with Huon Valley Council to co-ordinate the volunteers at the evacuation centre.
There will be a need for volunteers in the weeks ahead. People can register their interest at https://register.emergencyvolunteering.com.au/ or through the Volunteering Tasmania website.
Talking Point: Remarkable story unfolds at fire evacuation centre