In the aftermath of the Black Summer bushfires of 2019/20, KidsXpress swiftly moved into action to deliver a tailored trauma-focused program for the purpose of community rebuilding and socio-emotional rehabilitation. This was made possible via the generosity of a grant by the Tony Foundation which enabled us to engage the services of an education consultant to connect with the community and co-design a program that met their specific needs.
This program includes professional learning seminars, community consultation sessions, parent/carer workshops and 1:1 psychotherapeutic support to children aged 4-12 yrs. Beneficiary communities are primarily the regions of Tumut and Batlow in the Snowy Valleys region of NSW.
Our work went on to receive government support in recognition of its efficacy and our understanding that rural communities require different approaches to recovery than big cities.
Natural disasters in rural regions can trigger traumatic experiences that disrupt families and livelihoods and cause mental health issues. A longitudinal study by McFarlane et al (2009) found that mental health disorders in children were not immediately evident following exposure to bushfire; rather, symptoms had delayed onset, appearing 8–26 months after the event. This is most likely because the neurodevelopmental impact of exposure to trauma in children may only be noticed at later stages of development when higher order cognitive abilities and skills emerge. And while some children are resilient, others may suffer long-term mental distress like PTSD, anxiety, and depression, particularly if they were vulnerable before the disaster. These traumas can lead to withdrawal or challenging behaviours, negatively affecting academic success. Without intervention, trauma-affected students may fall up to five years behind their peers by Year 9.
Two years in, the impact of our work has been profound. Children have transformed from carrying trauma to carrying resilience and hope and their teachers have witnessed classroom re-engagement. Importantly, teachers state feeling supported as they’ve had to support children whilst dealing with the same trauma themselves.
Our innovative approach using Expressive Therapy – widely considered as best practice therapeutic intervention for children impacted by trauma – has showcased the power of healing through creativity in the Snowy Valleys bushfire recovery.
However, as resilient as the Snowy Valleys community has proven to be, the journey toward comprehensive healing is an ongoing process. The scars of the bushfire disaster run deep, and the emotional wounds continue to manifest in ways that demand our attention and care. Despite the strides we have made, there remains a critical need for sustained and targeted support to ensure that the progress we have achieved is not only maintained but deepened. As we continue our mission, we are committed to extending our reach, refining our methodologies, and working in close partnership with the community to build a stronger, more resilient future for every child and family affected by the traumatic events.