Providing a listening ear and a helping hand for fire evacuees

Sales Chaplain Rob Hayman, pictured in front of supplies handed to evacuees, was one of the first ports of call for those who departed Mallacoota via aircraft.
Sales Chaplain Rob Hayman, pictured in front of supplies handed to evacuees, was one of the first ports of call for those who departed Mallacoota via aircraft.

IN the past few weeks, RAAF Base, East Sale, has been the first point of contact for hundreds of evacuees, flown in from fire-ravaged communities.

Different communities have been through different experiences.

For some, the immediate threat of the fire was thrust upon them; for others, it was a waiting game of several days or weeks.

For all, the emotional toll was, and continues to be, heavy.

Hundreds of people and animals from all walks of life stepped down from military helicopters and planes, some in the dead of night, onto East Sale's tarmac - the vulnerable, the elderly, those with medical conditions, families with small children, pets and even the odd koala needing medical help.

Discreetly tucked away in a shed near the airfield, the RAAF's makeshift emergency reception centre provided an area where evacuees could access medical help and personal support.

Tables with snacks, drinks and blankets provided people with some relief after the flight, while a corner with donated toys and colouring books provided some comfort for children.

Squadron Leader Mark Kleeman, coordinating chaplain to RAAF Base, East Sale, said the emergency reception centre provided a first port of call for people arriving on aircraft, where they could be received, supported and cared for.

"Many hundreds of people have come through in different states as well, in terms of what's impacted them and the communities that they've come through," he said.

"You meet them in their story where they are."

From the centre, the chaplains ensured everyone was attended to, while coordinating what support networks in the community the evacuees needed to be transferred onto - whether an emergency relief centre or other agencies - to give emotional support or practical needs.

"Each network of support has its role to play in supporting people as well," Squadron Leader Kleeman said.

"People are focussed and energised; they're certainly receiving people from devastated communities with a lot of different emotions running through them," he said.

"Our response in that is certainly to do the best that we can, to care for and receive them and support them to the next part of their life going forward, and it has been rewarding in that sense for us."

Reserve Chaplain and senior pastor at Sale Baptist Church, the Reverend Rob Hayman, said given his previous experience, he had been able to connect with emergency relief centres and other agencies.

"It's been really useful to have a person who understands Defence and understands how the emergency relief centres work out in the community," he said.

"I've had the unique opportunity to support other agencies and be the liaison a little bit, unofficially, between those two helping agencies.

The Rev Hayman said the most important part of his role was just listening and caring, before helping evacuees connect with the best agency "so they can get to where they want to get to, or get the help they need".

"Our role as chaplains is just to do that personal support, and make sure their journey from where they have been to where they need to get to is as smooth as possible," he said.

The Rev Hayman said the overwhelming feeling in the centre hadn't been distress, but relief.

"Most of the people we saw as evacuees, they'd been sitting for a couple of days," he said.

"The crisis for them had sort of passed, so they were a lot calmer, they were relieved, and they were pretty circumspect about where they were going.

"They had made arrangements with relatives to be picked up, so they were working to getting back to some form of normality.

"No doubt, there was underlying stress and underlying discomfort from what they'd seen and gone through, and some of those stories came out, but they had debriefed with each other in the immediate, dealing with the immediate - but I have no doubt that some of those issues will rise in their emotions in the future."

He said the role he'd played during the past few weeks was not dissimilar to his role on base, or in the community.

"Our role on the base is to support the troops as they go about their everyday business, but pastoral care is pastoral care, personal support is personal support - it's just a different issue," he said.

"For me, wearing the different hats that I wear in the community, this is what I deal with all the time - people who just need to be encouraged and listened to, and reflect with, in different circumstances."