Bushfire recovery in action: Mighty Mallacoota

Black Summer Bushfire Recovery Community stories: 11 March 2022

Over the years, many community groups have received multiple grants from FRRR, and we love catching up with groups and leaders in the communities to share in the progress that’s been made. Last month our Corporate Philanthropic Services Manager Danielle Griffin met with Practice Manager, Marcus Renwick-Lau and Dr Sara Renwick-Lau who have worked with the Community Health Infrastructure and Resilience Fund Incorporated (CHIRF) to provide a holistic health service for the community of Mallacoota in the East Gippsland region of Victoria.

Mallacoota is an isolated, remote and ageing community with poor transport links. While its official population is around 600, that swells to closer to 7,000 during Summer, which puts a lot of pressure on local infrastructure, including medical services.

It had got to the stage where Sara, the one remaining GP, was ready to leave town – but before she did, she called a community meeting. She shared the challenges that she was facing, and the community was determined not to see her leave. So they formed CHIRF and bought the clinic (Mallacoota Medical Services), which opened in November 2019 – and then set about finding doctors to come and live in their lovely part of the world.

FRRR’s funding and support have been instrumental in helping the community achieve their vision. In 2018, an Enhancing Country Health Outcomes(ECHO) grant of $130,000 enabled the strategic planning that would increase GP services and set up a Teen Health Clinic. This model initiative began in a Bega medical practice and is replicated in several NSW South Coast communities. It is currently being evaluated through another grant, this time through the In A Good Place program (valued at $20,000).

Then on New Year’s Eve in 2019, a catastrophic fire swept over Mallacoota, resulting in 25% of the town’s homes being lost, and its only road in and out being closed for around six weeks. Residents were without power and regular supplies for most of January 2020. The impacts of devastating bushfires are known to be a tenuous time for the cohesion of affected communities. Through it all, the Medical Centre played a critical role in both health and social services, with its filtered air service providing fresh air and power for people seeking refuge from the smoke-filled air and large-scale power failure. 

CHIRF has since received four specific bushfire recovery grants from FRRR, as it seeks to fill gaps in healthcare in the town. They auspiced a grant for an initiative called The Sanctuary, which emerged as an immediate and necessary response to the 2019/20 bushfires that impacted Mallacoota and the surrounding district and inevitably caused traumatic disturbances to youth within the town, several of whom stayed to defend their homes. The Sanctuary’s vision is to provide a safe haven into the future for Mallacoota’s young people to be together, support each other and develop skills as leaders in their recovery from the bushfire event and beyond. It received a $12,500 grant from the Kofi Foundation’s Small Grants program (managed by FRRR) to engage a Youth Coordinator for three months to commence planning for the future of the group. The Sony Foundation also provided $100,000 in July 2020 via FRRR’s Tailored Grants to The Sanctuary (auspiced through another local organisation), to enable them to continue to develop the emerging youth group into a sustainable organisation.

CHIRF again teamed up with the Mallacoota Medical Centre to coordinate and manage a community-led healing project through music, involving a series of five workshops run over 12 months in Mallacoota to re-establish and strengthen a sense of belonging and social connection among the residents. The $24,938 grant, funded through FRRR’s 2020 News Corp Bushfire Recovery Fund, is covering the costs of a project coordinator for the ‘Out of the Ashes’ project, venue hire, and the purchase of a portable piano and guitars. At the end of the project, the musical equipment will be community-owned and accessible to all residents to use for community-building and social connection purposes. CHIRF is responsible for the equipment’s insurance, storage and administering the loan system. While the facilitators acknowledge that Mallacoota will never be the same, they see an opportunity to build on the community’s greatest strengths – each other, their networks and the love and connection they share for Mallacoota – to dream together a beautiful future.

And late last year, CHIRF was a recipient of the first round of the Bushfire Recovery Fund grants awarded in October 2021 to help backbone organisations in bushfire-affected communities build their capacity to deliver on the needs of their recovering communities and thrive. They’re using the multi-year $113,230 grant, co-funded by the Helen Smith Macpherson Trust and the Sidney Myer Fund, to recruit an employee with networking and community skills. This will support the next stage of planning that aims to realise the expansion and improvement of facilities for youth work operations, and also for respite and palliative care services to support people staying in their communities as they age.

The key aim is to give CHIRF a working capacity to fully research, strategize and manage the development of a number of major operations, and build recovery functionality for the community generally, using CHIRF’s administrative and auspicing capacity. This in turn will boost the organisation’s capability to support the community through bushfire recovery by funding additional skilled resourcing for the Mallacoota region. 

Seven other community groups in Mallacoota have also received grants from FRRR, totalling more than $125,000 to support the community’s recovery following the Black Summer bushfires including a webinar series on bushfire resilience. Four hundred $50 Back to School vouchers totalling $20,000 were also provided in the 2021 Bushfire Response round, supporting children and families who had lost everything in the disaster. 

There are many communities like Mallacoota that are embracing community-led recovery in the wake of the 2019/2020 bushfires, and subsequent disasters like the COVID pandemic and flooding. And, because we know recovery takes time, there’s more funding available as needs evolve and change. FRRR’s Strengthening Rural Communities Bushfire Recovery stream, which is now open, can fund projects that will help communities to seed and strengthen, adapt and evolve, and innovate and renew, as and when they are ready.