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No door is the wrong door

Lithgow

A story from Lithgow in NSW, reflecting life in August 2020

The Step by Step Recovery Service is one of seven recovery support services working in NSW with a specific focus on supporting people who have been impacted by the Black Summer bushfires.

A team of six (known as steppers) provide outreach support to residents living in the Mid-western, Lithgow, Blue Mountains and Hawkesbury local government areas as well as the greater Sydney region. The steppers provide a personalised case management support service.

In a four and a half month period, the steppers made 1200 contacts with residents.

Anne Crestani is the manager of the Step by Step Recovery Service.

“Step by Step was first activated back in 2013 following the Blue Mountains bushfires and this is our second time around,” explained Anne. “What we are seeing now is a mixed story. This was also our experience back in 2013. Recovery is a very long drawn out, complex process.”

The service is funded for 12 months through Resilience NSW. This allows steppers to walk along-side people and develop a relationship with them and it helps them navigate what can be a complex recovery support system.

“In our area, 120 houses were destroyed, and hundreds of residents sustained damage to their property or outbuildings and then of course with COVID 19 that’s created a very complex recovery environment. Now with the economic shocks that have come with COVID 19 on top of the bushfires, I can say with confidence this is THE most complex recovery environment that we’ve faced,” said Anne.

“We can provide information on grants and assistance packages. If they need help and support with completing applications, we can provide that,” said Anne. “Or we can just be a listening ear for people - often we go out and visit people and have a cuppa and a bit of a chat to see how they are travelling."

The service works with anyone that has been impacted in any way, and the steppers can also be a link for people who need more specialized support such as mental health services, housing support, drugs and alcohol abuse assistance, domestic violence assistance or support for their children.

“So, our philosophy is no door is the wrong door,” she said. 

Getting information to people has been a challenge, and in many cases some residents who were directly impacted by the bushfires are only popping their heads up now.

“We have had to rely on telephones, snail mail, emails and other forms of contact to let people know that we are here to support them. Some parts around here, particularly the Hawkesbury, are geographically remote. 

“People don’t have internet and the mobile network coverage is limited. In some cases, people don’t even have physical letter boxes anymore. So, there have been challenges in getting the word out there,” said Anne.

Mental health is a priority

“Events of this magnitude make an imprint and that imprint doesn’t just fade. It’s not like leaving a footprint in the sand that the ocean comes and washes away. The imprint is permanent, and it changes everything,” explained Anne Crestani.

Anne is the manager of the Step by Step Recovery Service. The service is one of seven recovery support services working in NSW with a specific focus on supporting people who have been impacted by the Black Summer bushfires.

A team of six (known as steppers) provide outreach support to residents living in the Mid-western, Lithgow, Blue Mountains and Hawkesbury local government areas. The steppers provide a personalised case management support service.

“The bushfires were extremely traumatic, and that trauma just doesn’t go away. That trauma continues and particularly in those early stages where people are focused on day to day survival.  The impacts of what they have experienced often don’t start to emerge until six, twelve months, two years after the event itself,” said Anne.

The service is funded for 12 months through Resilience NSW. This allows steppers to walk along-side people and develop a relationship with them and it helps them navigate what can be a complex recovery support system.

“I think we need to stop thinking and talking about mental health as some isolated issue. The streetscapes have changed dramatically, there is a dislocation within communities, people have had to move out of their communities, some may never return so that changes the social landscape as well as the physical landscape. All of this has a compounding effect on what were traumatic incidents,” said Anne.

In some cases, residents have pre-existing vulnerabilities, for example around mental health, family and relationship breakdown, employment, and income stability. The bushfires and COVID-19 are exacerbating those pre-existing vulnerabilities.

“After a natural disaster social isolation is often a norm but with COVID-19 and the economic shocks that have come from that, the social isolation is compounded,” she said. “Disaster events particularly of this scale are transformative, many lives will never be the same. Many communities will never be quite the same."