On Friday evening the space that was home for the Trees Not Bombs recovery café stood empty of its tent, pots and pans, makeshift kitchen sink and cups of tea and cake, but the most noticeable absence was the smiles and support of the volunteers.
For almost four months the Trees Not Bombs café was a place of warmth, comfort and a free feed, with close to 20,000 meals served to those made homeless by the floods, the volunteers and work crews who helped with the clean-up, and anyone in the community who needed a place to be while Lismore pulled itself up by the bootstraps after not one, but two debilitating flood events in February and March this year.
Volunteer Jane Watson says she was on board from the moment Susie Russell rang and asked her if she wanted to head northe for an adventure. ‘We watched in on the news. And it was like, what can you do? I feel now that I have done a lot, everybody who’s here has helped so much, and it helps yourself, you know?’
It’s hard packing up
Susie Russell says it’s hard packing up but it’s really good too. ‘The primary purpose was to respond to a flood emergency. The thing that brought us here was the forests, that was the connection that we have.
‘The forests need more now – we’ve got a state election coming up and the future of the forest is at stake. It’s really important that people understand that we haven’t got much time left, because our forests are being trashed at a really rapid rate. We need more time and resources. And hopefully, the Trees Not Bombs will resurrect at a forest blockade near you.’
A hole in Lismore’s heart
There is no doubt that the café will leave a hole in the heart of Lismore, and though businesses are slowly getting back to life, there are still many displaced people who need the type of support that Trees Not Bombs provides.
‘There are still people who need this,’ says Susie. ‘There are people who are people sleeping in their cars, there are people who have no kitchens, no utensils, who are going to find it really, really hard.
‘There are homeless people who have found it hard and always find it hard. Obviously, now it will be a lot harder. Here they have had as much food and drink as they liked – all day.
‘But the people I really feel for are those people who are sleeping in their cars and who have houses that are shells and who don’t have kitchens, and who are basically still not quite at Ground Zero, but almost. Their lives haven’t advanced a long way, the money hasn’t come through. the tradies aren’t around and they really, really need hot meals, and they really need somewhere to gather, and they haven’t got the resources and they can’t really afford to go and spend the 20 bucks per person to buy a meal.’
A short-term response to the floods
Susie says it’s not possible to just keep going with the café, it was only meant to be a short-term response to the floods. ‘We can’t sustain the volunteer effort. It’s a massive effort, there have probably been over 100 people easily who have been contributing. And some of us have other priorities, and we want to put our energy into something else. And so we can’t sustain this. Yeah, really?
Clearly, it’s up to somebody to fill the void but there is nothing on the horizon. ‘It would be great if the institutional responders actually recognised the need to feed people,’ says Susie. ‘So far, that is the thing that is missing from the institutional response. There are little caravans over there [in the Quad carpark] where you can fill out forms and talk to people, but where is the food that provides hot meals and somewhere for people to sit down and talk to each other? ‘
All praise for the volunteers
Both Susie and Jane say all the praise needs to go to the volunteers, the hundred-odd people who cooked, cleaned, served, comforted, played music, gave distracting rug weaving and signing classes and washed an untold amount of dishes.
‘The dishwashers! All praise the dishwashers! The team of people working here has been truly amazing and wonderful,’ says Susie. ‘We’ve made friendships that will endure forever. That’s really been great. We couldn’t have done it without everybody doing their bit.
‘These things are a team effort. You can set it up, but if no one comes in and does even a small bit, it doesn’t work. So everyone has made it work and it’s just been so inspiring the way people have stepped in to fill gaps – to participate in something that I think we’ll all remember.’