Help comes from afar for schools
"THERE were elderly people who'd spent two days on the kitchen table, some people sat on a laundry tub... I just can't imagine what it would have been like for people.”
These are the words of Rowena McGregor who arrived in Lismore on Sunday April 2, 2017, from the Hydes Creek Rural Fire Service Brigade near Bellingen, as part of a strike team deployed from Coffs Harbour to help with the flood clean up.
Operating out of the makeshift base at Wollongbar TAFE, Ms McGregor acted as a scribe, working with the RFS strike team leader to assess the clean up and assistance needs of those who had been affected.
Her first task was with the team at Richmond River High School and the Preschool in South Lismore, removing ruined belongings.
"Because of the level of sewage in the floodwaters, basically anything that had been wet by the flood waters had to be thrown out. And at the high school, you know, it was awful. Things like gym mats and high-jump mats and musical instruments, and just endless amounts of stuff,” said Ms McGregor.
"And then the pre-school, which is on the ground (level), basically we had to gut.”
As an ex-teacher Ms McGregor fully understood the magnitude of the loss.
"Yes, those things the government will fund, but teaching resources in the preschool, records, children's artworks, stuff like that. It's irreplaceable.”
The reality of the situation continued to sink in.
"This woman and a fellow came walking down the road and sort-of looking at the disaster, and looked fairly shell-shocked. And she didn't have any shoes on. And I said 'you really need to put shoes on', because there was raw sewage and dangerous things everywhere, it was a very dangerous setting. And she said 'look my thongs just slip off and then they're dangerous and my shoes were all washed away'.”
Ms McGregor instantly apologised.
"And then later on that day, or the next day, we were door-knocking in the area just looking to see who needed our help...”
"I knocked on Belinda's door and she came to the door and she was a mess.”
Belinda Walker thought everything was lost, literally.
A mother of 4, Ms Walker is the family's sole income earner, due to her partner having broken his neck in February of 2016. She had worked very hard to build-up her business, a home daycare centre called 'I care childcare' on Crown Street in South Lismore.
"Even the sand in the sand-pit I had to get rid of.”
When Ms McGregor knocked on her door the Family Home Day Care employers were there, telling Belinda what she needed to throw out, which was pretty well everything.
"They were up, in her house, and she was on the front step and we just stood and had a long, long, long hug and she was just crying and very sad and told me her story which really took my heart...she'd lost her business and her children had lost so much in their homes, and even the daughter who was about to move, who'd packed everything up from the safe level of her house and had it all packed and boxed and ready to go and moved downstairs...that was all destroyed,” Ms McGregor said.
"So I went away thinking 'Hmmm, here's somebody who's a hard worker...if she could get her business back up and running, then she can start taking children for the people who need to get back to work after the flood, who need day care', because obviously with day care not available that then becomes a problem and I thought 'Well, you know, it's really important for her to get back to work'.”
Ms McGregor went home and sent out an email to her fire brigade volunteers and included a few others who she knew to be quite generous. Together they were able to raise $1,500 dollars.
Then when Ms McGregor and her husband were passing through at Easter, she delivered a carload of donated goods, including some from her husband's daughter who had been a Family Day Carer herself, in addition to the cheque.
St Vincent De Paul also had some funds, through all the money that had been raised for the disaster, so they put in a floor for Belinda's business. There were some issues in the construction but eventually she gained a new concrete flood for her day care centre.
"It's all fresh and lovely and recovered and she's back at work and back on her feet,” said Ms McGregor.
"Most RFS volunteers are on the wrong side of fifty and they get in and they're an amazing group I absolutely love being and RFS volunteer and doing what we do, it's practical and hands on and just sometimes an opportunity presents that you can do a little bit more and I suppose that's what it was.”
Belinda admits to having been "completely broken” when she first met Ms McGregor and struggles with the emotions that come rushing back as she tries to express just how grateful to her she is.
"She stood there and listened to the whole lot, supported me, cuddled me.”
"She has since checked on me many times.”
"She came at Christmas time and left me a hamper on the veranda! She's been an absolute earth angel.”
"Just talking about her gives me the goosey's again!” said Ms Walker.