I raised my hand to volunteer as a financial counsellor in fire-affected regions … and promptly had it slapped down.
“Are you mad?”, she said.
I was standing in front of the woman who was in charge of deploying financial counsellors to disaster zones.
“You’re a bushfire survivor yourself. What happens if all those emotions get triggered again?”
I assured her I’d be fine, and I was soon on my way to the Victorian-border town of Cudgewa, which had been ravaged by bushfires. And that’s where I’m writing to you from today.
She was right about one thing, though — I have been hit with plenty of emotions doing this job.
Let me share some of them with you.
First there was … shame
On the drive up I looked at the dashboard:
“This is unbearable”, I whined, and then repeatedly hit the little snowflake button to crank up the air-con.
And then I turned a corner … and saw a chain gang of Blazeaid volunteers ‒ most of them in their seventies ‒ who were covered in sweat, and dirt and ash, as they put up fences for farmers trying to contain their livestock.
What a snowflake I am, I thought.
There was … kindness
When I arrived in town, I was invited to speak at a community meeting to discuss all the help that was available to the hard-hit community.
The bloke next to me was a young tradie with a hipster moustache and tatts.
Over the Christmas break, like all of us, he’d sat and watched Australia burn.
But what can one young bloke do?
Turns out, a lot.
He put a note on Facebook saying, “If anyone needs a hand rebuilding, I’ll give it a go, for free. And if any tradie wants to join me, let me know.”
And guess what?
Plenty did ‒ 14,000 of them, in fact — all offering to help, for free.
There was … relief
I set up a desk in the middle of a basketball court and was officially open for business.
People started shuffling in. I could see in the way they walked up to me that many of them were struggling.
They certainly weren’t in the right headspace to read through a 35-page insurance product disclosure statement.
(Seriously, are you ever?)
These people are expected to make financial decisions that may well shape the rest of their lives, while suffering from a bad case of ‘bushfire brain’.
So here’s what I told them:
“You need to focus on yourself, your family and your friends. Let me focus on your finances. I’ll call and negotiate with your insurance company, talk to your bank, and check out all the grants you’re entitled to. Then I’ll come back with a plan that’ll help put you back in control.”
You could see the relief on their faces.
There was … regret
Last Saturday night I headed to the local pub for dinner.
On the way, I walked past a house and saw a bloke sitting on his porch with his head stooped low. I waved, but he didn’t look up.
And I didn’t think much of it, until the next day …
… when I walked past again and saw an ambulance parked in his driveway.
I immediately feared the worst. After all, research shows that after a disaster like a fire communities will experience an upsurge in gambling, family violence, drug use … and even suicide.
Thankfully, he’d just taken a bit of a turn, and the ambos were all over it.
Yet I couldn’t shake the feeling of regret that I didn’t stop and take 30 seconds to say, “Hey, how are you doing?”
And finally … I was humbled
On Friday night we had an informal ‘Beer with Barefoot’ at the Cudgewar pub, and I shouted the bar (country people sure can drink!).
And get this: towards the end of the night a local bloke named Josh — who’d lost his family home and everything in it — presented me with a gift: a framed photo (see pic) he’d taken the day after the fires.
Yes … he gave me a present. How amazing is that?
Tread Your Own Path!