School communities band together in face of floods

From clean-ups, to meals, to accommodation and emotional support – NSW public schools and their communities have delivered during the flood crisis.

Image: Digging volunteering: Leveni Tuivai, Nunia Mafi, Keith Ross and Alofa Fui Mua.

Whether it was providing shelter, joining the relief effort or even inventing tools for recovery, public schools have again stepped up in the face of a natural disaster, putting student and community welfare at the forefront of their work.

Over the past three weeks, record rainfall has impacted schools up and down the State’s communities with the northern rivers area the hardest hit.

During the peak of the flooding earlier this week around 350 schools across the three education sectors were closed. On the State’s north coast at least 16 schools have sustained significant damage, with that number expected to increase as the department is able to access more areas.

As communities continue to deal with the immediate impact of the floods, a number of schools have shared their experiences.

Kyogle High School

When the recent floods swept through the Northern Rivers, Kyogle High School’s community banded together and swung into action to help their fellow community members in need.

The school turned into a hive of activity where current and former school staff and community volunteers began manufacturing tools for the flood clean-up and bulk meals for people left stranded without power, water and food.

Without a moment’s notice, the school’s Technology and Applied Science staff (Blair O'Meara and Dave Stewart) invented and made large squeegee brooms using materials donated by local businesses. These were then transported on the school’s bus to South Lismore and distributed to residents under the coordination of the school’s scripture teacher James Howes, supported by a team of local volunteers.

The brooms were a huge success story and have since been borrowed by other community groups. They are currently being used by the Wiangaree Fire Brigade to assist with clean-up in the nearby town of Coraki.

While the squeegee brooms were being manufactured in one wing of the school, the school’s hospitality cooking room was transformed into a large-scale food production hub.

Using food donated by locals in addition to the school’s pantry supplies, community volunteers started cooking bulk takeaway meals coordinated by school parent Shane Runciman. The cooking brigade worked 12-hour days for four days straight to ensure no one went hungry. The food was predominately vegetarian as it would last longer without refrigeration.

“People turned up with tinned goods, rice, pasta, pumpkins (a huge amount of ​pumpkin soup was made), containers for food and wooden forks, spoons, and the Red Cross Food Bank also made its food store available,” Kyogle High School principal Gae Masters said.

“One parent went to our local op shops and bought about 100 pieces of cutlery when we ran out of the disposable ones. Many people dropped off money and this was spent at the local IGA for ingredients while other community members offered to deliver food ... one lovely man turned up saying 'I can't cook, but I can drive a truck’.

“Everyone just worked together like clockwork and on one particular shift, there were at least 40 volunteers cutting up ingredients, cooking, making bliss balls, and cleaning up. Some of the ingredients took real ingenious skill such as green bananas and jack ​fruit which were turned into the most delicious curry,” Ms Masters said.

In the end, more than 1000 meals were delivered in eskies and hot boxes to people displaced all over the region from the Kyogle Railway Station platform and showground to South Lismore, Coraki and Box Bridge.

“The sense of community when working in the school hospitality room was amazing - there was a feeling that we were all there for a common purpose, doing good things and using a wonderful ​resource available in their local public school. Many of the volunteers turned up saying 'this is my school but I haven't been in here for 30, 40 years’,” Ms Masters said.

Image: Innovation: The brooms developed by Kyogle teachers to help in the flood clean-up.

The Channon Public School

Located on a hilltop about 20 kilometres north of Lismore, The Channon Public School became a beacon of safety during the floods.

With the township below surrounded on all sides by flooded creeks, locals contacted principal Stephen Manser for permission to use the school as an evacuation centre as the waters rose on March 1.

The school grounds include an old residence which was able to house families in immediate need and as the waters receded the school became a distribution centre to supply locals with essential items such as fuel, gas, food and clothing.

Mr Manser said the school community and staff had all been impacted in some way.

“For me the biggest challenge was not knowing if our families were safe and well and the feeling of helplessness,” he said.

As students returned on Wednesday this week for the first time, Mr Manser said they had dispensed with uniforms to ensure everyone felt welcome.

“We have some students who literally were left with the clothes they were wearing, so we didn’t want them to feel singled out by not having a uniform,” he said.

The school has been supplying breakfasts and holding BBQ lunches to help feed families and students.

“We have let our community know this is for everyone as some families are struggling to get food on the table,” he said.

On Wednesday the school invited its former students, now at high school, to spend the day at the school.

He said many of the students attended The Rivers Secondary College, Richmond River campus, which had been devastated by the floods.

“It was wonderful comradeship and it brought back some great memories, but importantly it was also a chance for them to come together and share their experiences.”

Image: Kitchen aid: Volunteers work at Kyogle High School to prepare meals for the community.

Wyndham College, western Sydney

When their local SES unit called out for help after being inundated with calls from the community, 16 Wyndham College students volunteered their time by bagging 26 tonnes of sand in just five hours, helping hundreds of local people protect their homes and businesses.

College principal Classa Martinuzzi said the Year 11 and 12 students worked hard throughout the day to help their community.

“The students did such a fabulous job that by 2pm, they had run out of sand and bags to fill,” Ms Martinuzzi said.

“They also helped to place sandbags into the boots of cars as community members were arriving for assistance. 

“This experience was not only an opportunity to give back, but to also educate our students about what the SES is and the important work it does for our community.

“We are so proud of all the students and teachers who were involved, and I know the local SES is grateful for the help they provided,” she said.   

For Year 12 student Kaili Johnsen, the opportunity to help was one she couldn’t refuse.

“I had seen on the news what has been happening with the floods and saw that people needed help,” Kaili said.

“So, when this opportunity came up, I saw this as a chance to help my community and I felt like I was making a difference.”

Leveni Isimeeli Tuivai, also in year 12, had the local community in his thoughts as he helped fill the sandbags.

“I just wanted to help out,” Leveni said. “Throughout the day I kept wondering where these sandbags were going to go – were they going to people’s houses?”

Meanwhile, fellow Year 12 student and volunteer Nunia Mafi developed a new appreciation for emergency volunteers.

“At the end of the day, I wondered how the SES volunteers can do this type of work every day,” Nunia said.

Bowral High School

When Bowral High School was notified on Monday afternoon that all buses in the area had been cancelled, its school community swung into action.

With students in the community travelling up to an hour each way to the school, deputy principal Kim Kelly knew many would be unable to get home.

Up to 15 teachers volunteered to stay behind and support the students as they waited to be collected with the last student picked up around 9pm.

“When school finished we had about 100 kids and by 7pm there were still 60 children waiting in the hall,” principal Jason Conroy said.

Some staff watched movies and played basketball with students, while others hit the phones to contact parents with updates.

The school’s P&C-run canteen manager Francine Egan and volunteer Cheryl Sharp “cooked up a storm”, providing dinner for the students and staff, while P&C President Kay Paviour dropped off blankets to keep everyone warm.

Mr Conroy said he was incredibly proud of his staff’s response.

“Kim (Kelly) was relieving principal at the time and she rallied the troops so that all roles were focused on supporting our kids,” he said.

“It was a real team effort and massive personal sacrifice by our teaching and non-teaching staff to support our students in a time of need.”

Image: Water world: An aerial view of flooding around Windsor in the Hawkesbury region, north-west of Sydney.
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