Involving your family in helping in a disaster zone.

With thirty hours’ notice, my 16-year-old son and I decided to drive 19 hours north to assist with the flood relief in Northern New South Wales in Australia. That area of New South Wales had had unprecedented flooding with the waters rising to the rooftops and submerging whole houses.

This hadn’t been on my agenda. In fact, we had just arrived home from where my son had received a service certificate in relation to his collecting socks for homeless people (he has collected over 32,900 pairs of brand-new socks with his charity ‘2 Pairs Each’). Somehow the conversation turned to the flood disaster and my husband suggested why didn’t we go. Hubby had to work (and has 5 guys working for him so couldn’t just drop everything). I looked at my diary – basically we could make it work by shifting numerous appointments around and changing priorities for the next week. Our eighteen-year-old daughter was unable to do due to work, so she immediately set up a ‘Go Fund Me’ page for us to be able to buy supplies for people affected by the floods. This was a valuable contribution which enabled us to buy first aid kits, medical supplies, electrical items, plumbing items, sports gear, boots, etc.

Thus began the long drive up north. Our son had recently obtained his learner’s driving licence and with only twenty hours under his belt, he drove most of the way. Brilliant driving practice in all conditions – sunny, raining, fog, mud, potholes galore, gravel, highways, and rural tracks. He racked up another forty hours drive within the week.

We had no idea what we would be doing, just that we wanted to help.

We ended up in a little town called Coraki. Most of the locals in the town had lost just about everything. The flood waters rose fifteen metres. Double story homes on stilts were flooded to the roof. Their homes needed complete stripping out. People had swum out of their top storey windows with kids under their arms, fearing for their lives. The town operated on septic tanks, so the flood waters caused toilets to spew forth sewerage throughout the homes. Foundations of many homes were altered significantly, requiring them to be pulled down. Most things, including the plaster walls, all electrical items and belongings needed to be thrown as they were ruined.

It was smelly due to the garbage still lining the streets nearly a fortnight after the initial onslaught of water. It was chaotic with an extra thousand volunteers in the town and locals desperately needing supplies with trucks and cars continually bringing in new supplies. It was muddy, wet, and slippery. It was exhausting. The loss and grief were palpable. Frustration and anger were barely being contained. There was a grim determination to push forward to complete the next thing that needed doing.

I was able to use my nursing, counselling, prayer, and organizational skills whilst our son helped pack and unpack supplies and distribute them. Other volunteers helped strip houses of all the ruined belongings and clean the remains. Others helped find missing livestock and get feed to them.

It was muddy. It was a mess. It was a disaster zone. But it was oh so rewarding. To be able to help people in a time of need brought gratefulness and empathy. To know we had made a difference in people’s lives brought purpose. We were able to bring a glimmer of peace, joy, and hope amidst the reigning chaos.

Many lessons were learnt – by us and the other thousand volunteers also assisting. Our biggest lessons were that anyone could help. You just needed to use your initiative. One family of three girls had their youngest daughter (aged around 3) standing at the entrance to the distribution centre handing out chocolate frogs to people. Her smiling face and bubbly personality brought joy to folk. Another young girl and her dad gathered up the excess fruit and vegetables that were becoming spoiled and made juice, handing this out to people. Not only was it refreshing and a welcome change from the bottled water as the only hydration but it also lightened people’s day seeing a child helping.

Other lessons revolved around self-care and pacing and not partnering with false guilt (ie I could go to a clean basic hotel room for the night and have a shower an hour’s drive away whereas the locals were sleeping in a hall on a camping mattress and hadn’t been able to shower for the past eleven days). Another lesson was around the fact that people express their needs and grief differently and there is no right or wrong way. Our role was to stop for the person in front of us and help them.

Many friends supported us in prayer and finances while we were away, and through these people’s generosity, we were able to deliver much needed supplies to the people of Coraki.

I kept our friends updated on our journey via a Facebook group. Here are two of the entries:

Day 2 Coraki:

Just arrived back at our hotel. Drove back through Lismore. Heartbreaking!! Sorry – no photos. It didn’t feel right to take photos. Too devastating. Found a route that will take about 10 minutes longer but with heaps less potholes.

What a day. Josh helped at the main tradie centre packing and unpacking trucks, carting supplies for people. Plus, erecting gazebos as still pouring with rain at times. He was a real trooper.

Over 1,000 volunteers helping in this town, mainly through Hoodies Helpers and Aussie Helping Hands.

I had a brilliant day walking around in the muddy back streets chatting to locals, hearing their experience, and praying for people.

An elderly man leaning on his walking stick in the mud told me it has only stopped raining for 3 days since the flood and those days were humid and hot. He was telling me about the furious nature of the flood and how it decimated 1metre x 1 metre concrete pylons. It started to pour, and he was happy to keep chatting in the rain. Couldn’t get any worse he said. He craved someone hearing his story of survival.

The area is inundated with supplies of food and clothing. They now need only certain supplies.

I ended up at the Fire Station which is full of food supplies manned by volunteers from Aussie Helping Hands. They asked me if I wanted to set up a coffee area and chat to people as they came in. What a blessing – right up my alley. Prayed for people, listened, & helped where I could. One couple were helping her 78-year-old mum who was screaming at them every time they went to throw anything out. She was a hoarder and couldn’t bear to part with anything especially ruined photos, but they couldn’t leave her house as is. Houses need stripping completely as water up to ceiling.

Brad, an elderly gent had heaps of practical questions like which phone number to call for a grant, does he have to arrange the safety inspector and the electrical inspector. Since I had chatted with Kim yesterday managing Centrelink enquires, I could assist him. He initially came in for sandwiches for lunch and a hot meal he could eat cold for dinner. He is back sleeping on the wet cold floor of his house with no electricity. All cars were flooded so all locals walking. It was too far for him to walk back up to get dinner so wanted to take a main meal to eat cold later.

Spent time listening to volunteers, debriefing them, and praying for them. One lady from Kempsey was a SES volunteer for 30 years and always assists with disasters. Since she is unvaccinated, she was not allowed to help the SES with the flooding near Kempsey, so she came up to Coraki and is sleeping in her car to help the SES up here. She couldn’t walk much today as she hurt her knee yesterday and sleeping in her car didn’t help but it was pain free after prayer and now greater movement in the joint.

Thank you so much for all your support, prayers, and finances.

We are about to have dinner and an early night.

Lesson 8 – ‘Be aware of your motivation’.

“Our motivation for helping others can stem from several different sources. It can come from a need to be needed or valued or appreciated or recognized. It can come from a place of feeling grateful for what you have and seeing someone with less and purely wanting to assist them. It can provide a sense of purpose for your life. Some people also help as it creates community with others, and they crave that acceptance and belonging. None of these reasons are necessarily wrong in themselves but it is important to be aware of the reason you yourself help others.

Helping others is costly and if our motivation is coming from an unfulfilled need within ourselves, then it can be easy to ‘spin out’, get angry or frustrated, or even develop a pious attitude.

If you are wanting a sense of purpose in your life, helping will positively impact your feelings but when that action finishes, you are still left with that empty feeling undergirding what you did. The community may disband after the helping occasion. The recognition may be short lived. We need to get to the point of not looking to others or to what we do to get our needs fulfilled and to have a sense of purpose and satisfaction.

For me, the sense of purpose comes from who I am in Jesus Christ and embracing who He has created me to be. Out of that ‘being’ comes a desire to create a better world to live in and for others to live in. The desire to help others in crisis is from asking Jesus “What would you do in this situation and what would you love me to do?” Another question I often ask is “Where are you Jesus in this situation?” and “How can I be your representation here on earth in this situation?”

It also taps into our theology of loss and grief. If we believe that bad things happen to people because they have sinned or done something wrong, it changes your world perspective and how you treat other people.

When we view suffering and pain as part of our earthly life and that Jesus is right there with us, present in our situation, walking alongside us through the pain, suffering, loss, grief, then it changes our perspective on the ‘why’ and helps us find comfort. Our Christian faith gives us hope and assurance that this is not the end, that something better is coming when one day we are reunited with Father God, Holy Spirit, and Jesus in Heaven where every tear will be wiped away and where death, mourning, sin, grief, and pain will be no more.

To be able to stop for the person in front of us and see Jesus in them and beside them is precious. To treat people as though they were Jesus and to care for them in their time of need is a gift.

This experience was certainly an ‘eye-opener’ for both our son and I, plus also a fantastic learning experience that we will not forget. As a mum, I was privileged to be able to serve in this way with my son and to be able to give him the opportunity to experience helping in a disaster zone.

Can I encourage you, if you and your family have an opportunity to help others in a disaster, step up to the challenge? So much is caught, not taught.

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