After the NSW floods:

The road to recovery

Unity in the face of adversity has been key to dealing with the flooding which devastated the northern rivers area of NSW in late February, Sue Osborne writes.

Local preschools and early childhood education and care centres from communities all over Australia, as well as the broader community, banded together to help those hit by flooding.

In April, thanks to pressure from the Northern Rivers Preschool Alliance, supported by the NSW/ACT IEU Branch, NSW Education Minister Sarah Mitchell announced additional funding for flood affected early education services.

The Northern Rivers Preschool Alliance, coordinated by Clunes Preschool Director and IEU Early Childhood Services Council member Melinda Gambley, set up a GoFundMe page appealing for financial support for rebuilding and replacement of lost equipment and resources.

The Alliance is a not-for-profit organisation representing 42 state-funded preschools on the far north coast, from Grafton in the south, Tweed in the north and west to Tabulam.

“We knew the first flood was coming, I’d already made the decision to close our preschool as I knew most of my staff would be flooded out – but we had no indication of the scale of what was to come,” Melinda said.

“I had been up early checking the river heights and could see it was going to be big – I contacted my staff and friends who lived in low lying areas to see if they were okay.

“It was truly shocking to see (in real time thanks to social media) the cries for help from people and the emergency services overwhelmed and unable to assist.

“I’ve lived here for over 25 years now, so I knew that several of our Lismore preschools would be seriously damaged and that the downstream communities of Coraki, Ballina and Woodburn would be next.

“Not only that, many educators, staff and families would have lost their own homes.

“The early childhood community here in the northern rivers is close; we have a strong network of preschools through the Northern Rivers Preschool Alliance and a long history of collaborating and advocating for each other.

“I was in the fortunate position that both my home and preschool were unaffected, but these people are my long-time colleagues and friends, I’ve worked in some of the preschools, and I know a lot of the communities and families.

“I contacted Kate Scanlan, the Director of Dunoon Preschool and Alliance President. We were both desperate to do something. We got our heads together and set up the GoFundMe and, with the support of the Alliance and the team at Koori Curriculum, began to manage this and some other practical support for preschools and local children.

“Around the same time, I wrote to Education Minister Sarah Mitchell, asI could see the impact was going tobe huge.

“The wheels in the Department turn excruciatingly slowly and it took several weeks to get any action; preschool directors, staff and families were left to manage the absolute devastation themselves.

“The toll on these people was, and continues to be, huge. On top of the challenges of the past two years, they are just about at breaking point, and they somehow struggle on.

“The recovery of our preschools will be slow and long. There is no one here who is untouched by these events; the devastation is widespread and ongoing, and we are already seeing the heartbreaking impacts of homelessness and trauma on our children and our educators.

“While the Minister has visited several times and has announced some funding and support, it’s not enough. While the initial counselling supports are great, they are short-term and need to be extended beyond the end of April.

“We’ve been so grateful for the support of our fellow educators and centres around NSW, but I just really hope the teachers, educators and children are not forgotten by the government and the people of NSW.”

The IEU wrote to Mitchell in late March to support the Alliance’s pleas. The letter said in part:

“These teachers have been actively involved in securing assistance for the clean-up, repair and relocation of their services so they can continue to provide quality education and care.

“The families rely on the preschools to provide care for their children while they attempt to rebuild their lives. The children need the security and routine from their trusted educators to enable them to recover from the trauma of this disaster in a caring, familiar environment.

“The IEU urges you as Minister and your department to urgently direct adequate resources to support these teachers and their colleagues to rebuild their early education services. Currently these services are relying on volunteers for cleaning and donations of resources to enable them to operate.

“The union is concerned about the ongoing effect this disaster will have on these teachers, particularly regarding burnout and fatigue which will exacerbate the current teacher shortages. We believe that teachers should have access to funded counselling, if they request it, to be able to continue to perform their jobs in this difficult situation.”

On 5 April, Mitchell announced a package including $9.5 million for psychology and counselling for school and early childhood staff and trauma training so they can support students, and $9 million to help ECEC services rebuild.

Lismore Preschool

The families rely on the preschools to provide care for their children while they attempt to rebuild their lives.

The Lismore Preschool team said support from the Northern Rivers Preschool Alliance was a great help in directing the offers of equipment and money.

The amazing response of the local community – which not only carried out heroic rescues at the height of the flooding, but has done an amazing clean-up – also lifted their spirits.

Lismore Preschool was inundated up to its roof. A new structure built to withstand a one-in-200-year flood was submerged. All the preschool’s learning and teacher resources, furniture and books collected over many years, were lost.

The team are drawing on their experience of the 2017 flooding, their knowledge of their families and children and their core strengths and stability to develop a careful recovery plan for the children.

They are also supporting each other, with all staff impacted in one way or another, some educators also losing their own homes and belongings.

Soon after the floods, the preschool organised a get together at a local park for staff and families (pictured).

“This event was extremely popular, with families enthusiastic about getting together and having the opportunity to experience some sense of normality and reconnect with staff and each other,” Educational Leader Lynette Funnell said.

The preschool will re-open soon in a demountable in the grounds of Lismore Public School. Nominated Supervisor Alexis Smith said the Department of Education had acted quickly to find them a new home. In the longer term, they will look to repair and renovate their preschool once again.

Alexis said they contacted all their families individually, prioritising those more vulnerable or from areas that experienced the worst inundation to return to preschool in a temporary classroom at Lismore Public School.

This allowed for approximately 70 families to return one day per week, with all families then able to return when the preschool moved into the newly arrived demountable classroom for the start of Term 2.

“We recognise there will be a lot of trauma. Some of our children had to be rescued from rooftops and attics,” Alexis said.

Lynette said listening to the children would be a priority, as would looking for opportunities to utilise resources that address the children’s needs, including liaising with other local organisations that can offer physical and emotional support.

“We know from 2017 that it can be many weeks or months before some children can display their real emotions. This can include role playing whenever it starts raining, with children talking a lot about the flooding.

“We must provide opportunities for these experiences to play out as one way for them to help work through their trauma; being able to talk about the flooding in ways they wish, to help them make some sense of their experiences and even relive them if they need to.

“We’ll be looking at support such as play-based therapy, being as creative and adaptive as we can,” Lynette said.

It has also been acknowledged that the staff team will need to look out for each other as well as the children. However, Lynette said the team is strong and stable and the preschool is run with a focus on whole centre support, including providing for over-ratio staffing levels, which in turn will help with individual needs.

Alexis said: “Everyone has a voice here; every idea is valid. I think that helps keep us together, as well as our good conditions.”

Cawongla Preschool

Families have been going through hell and high water, literally, to reach Cawongla Playhouse Community Preschool and restore a sense of normalcy and security to their children.

Cawongla is about 30km north of Lismore and was one of the few preschools on the northern rivers not to be inundated during the March flooding. While its staff and families were mercifully spared total inundation of their homes, many were cut off for days, with landslides and collapsed roads a feature of the area.

Director Stephen Gallen was cut off for a week and had to have his car towed to higher ground by a tractor. Each day he hiked across landslides to reach his car and drive to preschool.

He said many families were prepared to endure similar difficulties to take their children to preschool every day. They welcomed the chance to reassure their children that life was going to go on as it had before.

“In the first weeks back, we talked to their children about their concerns. One girl asked us in the afternoon, when it started raining, if her mum was going to get flooded,” Stephen said.

“We answered that question honestly and explained that in this case it was just a shower,” Stephen said.

“We did a lot of work with water, dirt and sand. The children were fascinated by landslides and so we used the sandpit to dig channels and show them how water flows and how landslides work.

“One child spent his weekend digging a trench around the house with his father and grandfather, and when he came to preschool on Monday we were digging trenches in the garden.

“There’s a strong storytelling component to our program – oral storytelling, not just books – so we told children stories about other children having to climb out the window and being rescued by boats.

“All the stories ended positively with a lot of affirmation around resilience and strength. We were trying to allow the children to face their concerns, ask questions and deal with their anxieties.

“The flooding was a big part of their experience so we didn’t want to push it aside. We wanted to give them the chance to talk it through in a calm way and provide connections.”

Stephen said a month after the main flood there was a mixture of resilience, strength, and trauma on display, although the persistent rain was making the recovery process harder.

IEU support

NSW/ACT IEU Organiser Tina Smith said members should not neglect their own mental health while they try to recover from the flooding, and should remember that their workplace entitlements still apply, even during this difficult time.

Contact your union for advice about emergency disaster leave, personal leave entitlements or other matters.

To support the Northern Rivers Preschool Alliance appeal, see: