Other descriptions fit: Good Samaritan. Godsend. Hero. Humble Mick would shudder at ‘hero’, but if anyone should wear that overused tag then it’s this volunteer charity worker who spends his life helping others live theirs better.
The former schoolteacher is chairman of the Social Justice Advocates of the Sapphire Coast. He’s a heart-warming exemplar of how communities are dealing with the horror, heartache and hopelessness of the 2019-20 summer bushfires. That is, communities helping and healing themselves as victims fall between official cracks in the formal recovery process of governments and councils.
When Ray Martin and I filmed with him near Bemboka in the Bega Valley on the NSW far south coast for our documentary The Forgotten Australians on the PRIME7 and GWN7 networks, Mick was delivering his 49th caravan. He’d picked it up from Newcastle. Since the fires, caravans have come from as far as Melbourne, Brisbane, Wagga Wagga, the Blue Mountains and all over NSW. The recipients had been camping in tents, half-burned sheds or even lean-tos. At best they were in rented accommodation, but for many the rent assistance had run out.
That’s what had happened to the recipient family we filmed - Angus and Stephanie Johnston and their three little girls aged two, four and six. After losing everything, they’d lived firstly in a garage and then a small rental before Mick delivered their temporary home on wheels to their block in the Bemboka hills.
It’ll be tight living for the Johnstons as their new house is built, but they don’t mind. They are home on their own soil, and that in itself is part of the healing process. Funds ($25,000) for their caravan were raised by a local church group, ADRA. A couple of sheds – for a kitchen and kids’ schoolroom – were donated by the local Coates Hire franchise.
However, many of the caravans have been simply donated by strangers – to strangers.
“People were contacting us, giving away their caravans, “ said Mick. “Perfectly good, roadworthy, registered vans, just giving them to the fire survivors.” He told the story of one young couple who phoned to say come and take their brand-new caravan – complete with crockery, cutlery and linen.
“Human nature is extraordinary. It may sound like a cliché, but the human spirit is fabulous. The strength of community, the strength of volunteerism in rural communities, the resilience of people and their ability to smile and grit it through. I mean, that’s quite extraordinary.”
What’s also extraordinary that, nine months after the fires, there is a still a need for caravans as basic shelter.
One of the images I first had was going to (the small town of) Quaama, delivering a caravan. And the lady is sitting there, the trees are blackened, all that’s left is the iconic brick chimney, blackened and burned and the twisted metal. And she’d been waking up to that for several months, and you just felt for her. She was just waiting for someone to come and clear it all away, to erase that image from her mind.
“And there was another older couple in a similar circumstance, again at Quaama. And I went there three months later and they were still traumatised, like the fire just happened yesterday. Yet they had waited for months to ask for help.”
After the caravan delivery we went with Mick to his next stop in the Bemboka hills where he helped install a shower for a 75-year-old woman. Jan Reynolds wasn’t eligible for government financial support because her house burned down in big bushfires of 2018. Because this wasn’t part of last summer’s fires, Jan wasn’t eligible for government assistance. Two years later, her own caravan was perched on a bare compound which previously housed her homestead, sheds, orchid garden and three vehicles – all lost – with no running water available.
Mick and his mate Mark Smith from the Social Justice Advocates fixed that. They installed a pump from Jan’s creek, a hot water system and a shed with shower. The look on Jan’s face said it all as the water sprang from the shower nozzle – for the first time on her property in two years.
While Jan is forever grateful, she is also bewildered at why a first world country should be relying on social and charity groups to help victims of natural disasters. She can’t understand how the two billion dollars of federal recovery funds and tens of millions of other funds and donations isn’t covering basic housing.
“For instance the government could provide emergency housing or social housing in these small communities where in an event such as this happens,” she told us. “And there are going to be more such events, this is not a one off. We need to be prepared for the next one. So, where they can just let people have a bed for the night, you know, or a week or two, or more, whatever’s necessary.”
Governments and councils, she says, should also be more proactive in going into communities checking for those who need help.
“People need to be asked, they won’t come out and ask for it,” she said. “Most of us don’t like asking. But when someone offers you, as I was offered the shower, you know, that’s marvellous. But I wouldn’t dream of going and asking for it.”
Mick Brosnan agrees and says the coronavirus has added a dreadful element for those affected by fires and drought before that.
“It is an extraordinary thing for a rural community, “ he said. “Volunteers are overloaded, organisations are overloaded, and the government has to just realise this. And people say, ‘Ah, we’re forgotten now because COVID has taken over from the fires.’ They’re not forgotten. But that triple whammy has trebled the impact of the drought, the fires and COVID.
“You do hear people say, ‘Oh, the government doesn’t care anymore, COVID has taken precedence over everything. That’s all we see on the news.’ It’s not that they don’t want to see and hear about the fires again, but they just want people to remember that, hey, we lost everything in January and, you know, we’re still here. We’ve got no home. Just to be recognised for that and supported.”
The theme of communities rallying together runs through this documentary.
At tiny Dargan, near Lithgow in the Blue Mountains, we filmed 40 people coming together over a weekend to build a barn and shed for the Alexander family. Susan and Nick Alexander and daughter Jessica will move into the barn and live on their block as their house is rebuilt.
In Cobargo, the south coast town that became a byword for bushfires, the Ayliffe family has made the single biggest donation to help the town’s recovery and ensure the tragedy is never forgotten. The Ayliffes have six family members in the RFS, including the current brigade captain Mark and former captain Brian, one of the nation’s most experienced firefighters with 62 years in the RFS.
Brian and wife Helen owned a house – their original family home – and a shop in the main street which burned down. Instead of rebuilding, they have donated the empty land block to the town as the site of a proposed Resilience Centre. As a gallery, museum and archive it will be a permanent memorial to those who died or suffered in Cobargo’s worst event.
Cattle and sheep farmer at Wandella in the Bega Valley, Warren Salway, was blown away by young people who helped him and wife Helen after the fires wiped out sheds, barns, equipment, tools and fences. They donated time and tools to build new sheds and fences.
A Mallacoota on Victoria’s far north coast, depressed musician Justin Brady originally was considering leaving and settling elsewhere after losing everything. But he told us that the way the community rallied around each other had convinced him to stay.
Justin now is a beacon of that community spirit. He often wanders down to the Mallacoota lookout and entertains elderly ladies with his upbeat mandolin and harmonica music.
As our Good Samaritan Mick Brosnan said, human nature is extraordinary.
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