Power of a playground: Cobargo Preschool

Before the coronavirus crisis came the bushfires that shattered Cobargo – and the playground of its preschool. Kindness and community are the keynotes in its recovery, director Christine McKnight tells IEU journalist Monica Crouch.

It was only six months ago that bushfires tore through the small town of Cobargo, in the Bega Valley of south eastern NSW. Shocking images emerged on new year’s eve of the town’s main street flattened by the massive fire.

With a population of just 775 people, Cobargo was devastated. The fire destroyed almost 450 homes throughout the shire, more than 120 of these in Cobargo.

Yet out of this horror sounded a small note of hope. Cobargo Preschool, on the far reaches of the main street, was left untouched – almost. “The fire jumped the fence, but it was put out by our neighbours because nobody else was around,” said Cobargo Preschool director and IEU member Christine McKnight. “Two people who lived in the street heard it was getting into the preschool and they came over.”

But at that stage, there was no water available to them. “They put the fire out with sticks and branches and by pulling things away from the building,” McKnight said. “It was amazing because this saved our building, otherwise it would’ve gone up.”

Immediate aftermath

McKnight was stunned when she first saw the school. “I don’t think I have words for it,” she said. “I just could not believe it. The fire had come right to the boundary of the building. I was in disbelief that it could even happen, and that the preschool was still standing but two nearby houses had burned. I couldn’t find words.”

While the preschool building was saved, the grounds had sustained considerable damage. “The fire had destroyed some of our playground area,” McKnight said, and play equipment was left unsafe.

As the week wore on, she heard news of her young students. “Everyone in our community, and in our preschool community, had suffered some loss,” she said. Among the preschool’s 20 students, “10 had lost homes, I think another seven had damage to property – so even if they still had a home, fences or sheds were damaged or their animals or something was lost”. The few who escaped direct losses had nonetheless experienced anxious evacuations (see story, High anxiety).

The fire revealed just how central the preschool is to the Cobargo community. Of the neighbours who’d fought the fire, McKnight said: “I think they thought it was really important that the children have the security of somewhere to come back to – they thought their preschool was an important thing to save.” The rest of the town saw it that way too.

The community thought it was really important that the children have the security of somewhere to come back to –they thought their preschool was an important thing to save.

Starting over

Fortunately, the preschool’s insurance company came through with funds quickly. Then one of the fathers, Tim Dummett, and his team at local landscaping business Proscape Garden Construction, was keen to take on the project. “Tim was just wonderful,” McKnight said. “He came in with such confidence and so many ideas, and he took the stress away from replacing the playground and has just done the most beautiful job. It’s more beautiful than it was.”

Proscape had other jobs booked in, but these clients were only too happy to wait in favour of the preschool. “After such a traumatic school holidays for the children and their families, we wanted to be able to offer a familiar and safe space for the children to come and play as soon as possible,” Dummett told the Bega District News.

The rebuild worked wonders for the children. “The playground gradually started to get better, and that was a real healing process for all of us,” McKnight said. “Before our eyes, the thing that was awful was gradually becoming better.”

Unexpected generosity

To McKnight’s surprise, the school received all kinds of donations, including teddy bears, backpacks, food and clothes. “People have contacted us from great distances and other preschools have got together and supported us and supported the families,” she said.

Out of the blue, McKnight was contacted by a mother in the Wollongong area. She’d been watching the news about Cobargo and done her best to answer questions from her three-year-old son. The little boy disappeared into his room, filled a backpack with his favourite toys, and told his mother he wanted to give it to a child in Cobargo. McKnight facilitated this exchange. The little boy who received the gift responded by finding some small thing of his own to give in return.

Where the heart is

In the immediate post-fire period, McKnight says the preschool became a centre for local families to come together and talk. When bringing their children to playgroups, parents were also encouraged to hunt through the donations sent to the school and take anything they needed.

The sheer devastation throughout the area made it hard for everyone to stay positive all the time, McKnight says, but she was struck by how Cobargo united. “The community has stayed together, built up resilience and cared for each other,” she said. “There’s the support everyone is offering to each other, the way the community has strengthened.

The preschool “family” has also become a stronger unit. “The community promotes for the children the importance of building resilience and being positive – they are seeing we will be OK if we stick together,” McKnight said. “I think that’s been a really strong thing that’s kept going throughout the fires, and now the virus.”