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Lessons to recover

"I was scared," says Rhianna, 11, when she saw the fire approaching her school in the small town of Molesworth, Tasmania.

The picturesque town lies in a valley 22 kilometres out of Hobart. Known for its natural environment, it's a favoured weekend getaway. This bush land also means that the area is at high risk of bushfires. Similar to the town of Kinglake in Victoria that experienced deadly fires in 2009, Molesworth has only one narrow road in and out of town.

So when the fires came in February 2013, the Molesworth community was trapped. While the residents had experienced bushfires before, this was different. Severe and unpredictable, smoke and fires threatened the community again and again, forcing repeated evacuations for weeks.

The students and teachers at the Molesworth Primary School, located right in the middle of town, felt particularly vulnerable.

"We were at school and could see the smoke from outside the classroom windows," says Raegan, 12, who has been a student at the Molesworth Primary School since she was in kindergarten.

"There was nothing we could do, we couldn't go because we didn't have buses on site and we couldn't get the children out, so we just had to wait. There's really nowhere for us to go, we were just surrounded," says Eileen Breaden, Riana's and Raegan's teacher.

The school closed for four days and then reopened, but the anxiety didn't decrease as the fires continued.

"Everybody was on tenterhooks waiting to see what would happen. We went through weeks while the weather was still really hot and we had the helicopters going overhead constantly. There was a lot going on for the kids to cope with," says Jill Armstrong, Principal of the school.

Rebecca Newton, Red Cross Recovery Coordinator, heard that children in the community were suffering from high levels of anxiety following the fires. Some kids had fires come up close to their properties; others felt stressed around seeing smoke and having their daily routines disrupted for weeks. Many felt helpless when their parents didn't know what to do during the fires.

Rebecca knew the emotional impact of fires well. "Molesworth reminds me of the Kinglake area in Victoria," she says. Rebecca approached Jill Armstrong to find out what they needed and how Red Cross could help.

The Principal let Rebecca know that the school was committed to helping the kids work through their feelings after the fires. Together they identified that the Red Cross Recovery Lesson Plan would enable the teachers to help the kids affected by the fires.

Developed by Red Cross in partnership with educators, the Recovery Lesson Plan is a resource for teachers across Australia to help their students better understand their feelings after an emergency and empower them to be better prepared for future ones. The teachers at the Molesworth School used the Red Cross resources to compliment their regular lesson plans.

"A lot of them [children] needed to tell their story. That's part of what has to happen, and that's how people cope. Sometimes telling their story over and over again is how they move on and you've got to allow them time to do that," says Eileen.

The children appreciated using lesson plans such as drawing and games to work through their feelings. "Doing exercises at school helped. Knowing that other people in our class have been through it, it helped," says Kiara, a student. Her classmate Jacob agrees. "It helps to talk to my class. I like getting it off my chest."

Teachers also referred parents to Red Cross' website for recovery resources: "For families, it's got excellent information relevant for kids. They can easily use the Red Cross website to help them. It offers them lots of ideas for how they can protect themselves in the future too," says Eileen, who's been teaching at the school for nearly ten years.

"Red Cross makes it so that there's somewhere where people can go in order to get the support that they need. It's amazing that Red Cross is playing such a big role in supporting people as far as fire recovery goes."

A lifelong educator, Eileen has seen the benefits of providing resources for children and their families after fires as traumatic as those Molesworth experienced.

She encourages the Australian public to support Red Cross to ensure that other communities have similar support if they need it.

"If people don't donate to Red Cross, then people who have lost everything in a fire often won't have that contact with the resources and support that can help them deal with the situation. Red Cross is an organisation that can support those people."

Red Cross Recovery Lesson Plans can be a lifeline for a teacher trying to help a child cope with trauma after a disaster. Please donate to Disaster Relief and Recovery to help Red Cross reach out to children like Rhianna, Raegan and Kiara in disaster-affected communities to help them recover.


Photos: Australian Red Cross/Rodney Dekker