Wardell’s Community Organised Resilience Effort is now operating out of the old bank building in Wardell, after a controversial forced move from the much larger War Memorial Hall, which is currently being renovated following the floods.
This week The Echo met two of the main CORE volunteers, Venetia Scott and Joel Orchard, at their new base of operations, which has also been affected by flooding.
What’s been happening?
‘We’ve relocated’, said Mr Orchard. ‘The community decided that the value of having a facility to support themselves through the flood was such a priority that we’ve taken on a private lease. And we’re self funding that. So now we’re completely independent, and requiring the community to come together to solve its own problems here.’
Has it been difficult moving to a much smaller space? ‘Yeah, this space definitely offers some challenges. We no longer have that open plan, warehouse style space to distribute the kinds of goods that we have.’
Mr Orchard said there were also advantages to not being controlled by the regulations of being in a council building, or ‘being under the Progress Association, the lease holders of the other building who made things really difficult for us.’
CORE is now having to pay $550 a week in rent to help the Wardell community, with utility fees on top of that. ‘We’re asking everyone who walks through the door to pop in some coins, or a note in the donations tin. And that seems to be getting us through, mostly.’
Is that affecting your ability to help the community?
‘Every dollar that goes into rent is dead money,’ explained Mr Orchard. ‘That’s money that doesn’t go out into the community. It’s definitely a limiting factor. And the size of the space means we don’t have the ability now to run trauma recovery events, or specific kinds of group therapy stuff.
‘We’ll do what we can. But yeah, I think it’ll affect the way that we deliver services now.’
Venetia Scott says the move was very stressful. ‘It’s been a really big setback. I feel like the last six weeks have almost been lost in terms of being able to offer more services and activities for the community.
‘It’s just been packing and trying to find a new location and then trying to unpack. Yeah, I feel like we’ve been severely compromised in what we can offer the community in this time,’ she said.
‘We have two 40 foot shipping containers full of things that the community needs right now. And we have no way to display it. People have been coming in for really basic items like bedding, and warm jumpers and jackets, and boots. And we have that, we have all of those things, but they’re in a container, we have nowhere to display it here.
‘I find it really heartbreaking not being able to meet those really important needs right now, when we could have had the room for it,’ said Ms Scott.
‘This is a gorgeous old building, but accessibility is a big problem. We were aware of that, but it’s the only option we had, so we have to go with it. People with mobility issues really struggle to get in and out.’
Moved in a hurry
While the CORE team feel they have been treated unfairly, other stakeholders have said that the Wardell Hall building was needed urgently for other purposes.
Venetia Scott told The Echo, ‘There was a really hard deadline for the election, with an unwillingness to compromise around either sharing the space for the election or giving us a bit more time to find a new location.’
‘We didn’t have enough time to find a new location or to set ourselves up here by the election date.’
Joel Orchard said, ‘There was a week when we were completely in limbo, we had nothing. So everything had to go into storage, because we had nowhere secured. Now we’re not officially open yet and we’re getting on average 70 people through the door every day needing help.
‘We’re logging everyone’s needs as they come through the door. There’s a very strong need for the support.’
Ballina Council recently reconsidered its decision to effectively evict Wardell CORE from the Memorial Hall without considering a formal EOI, but the numbers weren’t quite there to change direction.
Joel Orchard says, ‘This situation is complex, and we can acknowledge that the building needed repairs. What I think is most disappointing is that council have never come to ask the community what their needs are. There’s been no consultation from councillors.
‘They’ve made enormous and gross assumptions about what we’re doing, and making outlandish and insulting descriptions around what the community is doing here to support themselves. Council has not come to the table with any offers of support, they’ve really just said, “You’ve done a great job up until now. And now you’re on your own.”
‘At every other level of government, there’s an acknowledgement that this is a really long term problem that needs solving… There’s an extraordinary lack of empathy from that voting bloc within council to not understand how desperate the needs are here,’ said Mr Orchard. ‘It doesn’t make any sense.’
Cr Eoin Johnston spoke at length in the recent council meeting about the situation, but the Wardell Core are far from impressed at his role on the ground.
‘He came to interrogate us basically, on what we’re doing,’ said Mr Orchard. ‘There was no sense of an interest or an offer to provide support or resources or to find out what was actually needed in the community.
‘You know, we’re still making this up as we go along. We’re reflecting on the day to day needs of the people, and we don’t have the resources to plan for any further than that.’
What’s the solution?
‘I would love to see more proactive and empathic support from Ballina Council,’ said Venetia Scott. ‘We’re getting support from councillors in other areas, more than our own councillors here, which I find astounding.
‘I would like them to engage with us and to converse with us about what the real needs are, and to not make assumptions based on hearsay,’ she said. ‘Because so much of it is just profoundly untrue.
‘At the end of the day, we are all just volunteers who rocked up in the midst of an emergency to help our neighbors and friends as best we can. Why aren’t these other people helping as well? Why aren’t they coming to the party?
‘There are opportunities for everyone here to be assisting with their different skill sets and different interests. We’re not doing the same thing, we are doing quite different things. There’s so much room for all of the different groups and individuals to be operating in a far more collaborative way. That’s what we’re about,’ she said.
Filling a vacuum
Joel Orchard said, ‘The beautiful thing about what we’re offering is that it is decentralized and it can be agile. There’s so much room for other agencies that are offering support, but we don’t see that from council and we don’t see that from the pre-existing community organizations in town either. We feel like we’re filling a vacuum.
‘Wardell is literally the epicenter of the flooding disaster for the Ballina Shire Council, and there’s nothing here.’
The recovery situation in Wardell is about to get even more complicated, according to NSW government plans, as Mr Orchard explained.
‘We’re about to have landed here a population of flood refugees in the demountable village up at the Rec. Center, which will potentially double the population or Wardell.
‘So now is the time to be investing seriously in capability and capacity here. We would argue that having been here from the beginning, we’ve got the best and most contemporary information on what that support needs to look like.
‘I mean, even our mental health support team here is completely overwhelmed with no resourcing; everyone is pro bono and volunteers. This is going to be a disaster that is ongoing unless we start to invest in solutions now,’ said Joel Orchard.
Ballina too far away
‘Council made the point that they’ve got a recovery hub in Ballina that everyone in this region can access,’ said Venetia Scott. ‘But we find that a lot of people lost their cars, they’re overwhelmed with recovery at home – they need a facility in their own town where they can make their own community that can be really responsive and adaptive to their needs.
‘I think us just having a kettle on for people to come in and have a cup of tea and chat with their neighbors and provide a social space is a really integral part of the services that we offer here. And that just can’t be replicated anywhere else, but in a person’s own hometown.’
From Tambourine Mountain to Wardell
Another active volunteer at Wardell CORE is Linda Galbraith.
‘I’m from Tambourine Mountain,’ she said. ‘I came down with a carload deliveries in March, these food items donated by the Tambourine Mountain Sports Association from a list I’d seen on Facebook. When I arrived, I was quite shocked, saw a need and stayed.’
Ms Galbraith says the forced move to the smaller space was very disappointing. ‘There could have been so many other ways to resolve the situation, while respecting the effort of Wardell CORE in bringing people together; providing needed services, comfort, goods and encouragement.’
She said this included the necessary skills and technology for flood-affected people to connect online with government authorities who could provide additional assistance.
‘Also, CORE was very, very accommodating for anyone who wanted to use the hall for evening classes, presentations, morning groups; they went out of their way to rearrange furniture and provide a comfortable space for meetings,’ said Ms Galbraith.
Wardell, we’ve got a problem
‘The leadership skills of Joel and Venetia are such that, it’s like that scene from Apollo 13, they work with what they’ve got,’ she said. This is a smaller space, and a different configuration, but they’re still offering compassion and action.
‘What do you need, what can we link you up with? Do you need fresh fruit, vegetables, furniture, or just a cuppa and a chat? They’re rearranging the space to provide for what people need, especially with winter coming on.
‘We received a donation of 200 hand knitted quilts and blankets this morning,’ said Ms Galbraith. ‘They will be very useful for people as it gets colder.’
As for the government response to the disaster, Joel Orchard and Venetia Scott have some concerns.
‘They skip through all of the red tape, but then they don’t bring anyone along for the ride. They expect everyone to just accept what’s going in,’ said Mr Orchard.
‘I would say that what we’re offering here is informal suicide prevention,’ he said. ‘Absolutely. That’s the level of support that’s needed. And if we hadn’t taken the steps to completely take responsibility for this, there would be nothing in Wardell.’
Ms Scott agrees. ‘The situation is really drastic, this is not what we signed up for. We had no concept or intention of ever doing something like this, but there was just an absence of leadership from anyone else. We know that if we let go of it, it would vanish.
‘We’re trying to hold this space to enable all these other amazing people – including our mental health volunteers, all of the local volunteers and residents and groups who are coming and being a part of it – we’re just holding it so that they can do what they do. They’re incredible,’ said Ms Scott.
‘The people that come through here have a genuine and active interest in being involved in the recovery effort,’ said Joel Orchard. ‘This is about forming a collective where people can come together to steer what resilience looks like for them.
‘That’s what community-led recovery’s all about; ensuring that the stakeholders who are affected have some agency over what the recovery process looks like, rather than a cookie cutter or top down approach.
‘We’re appealing for support and resources to do what we’re doing better. Because by all descriptions, we’re doing an exceptional job. We just need help rather than people throwing roadblocks,’ he said.