Kerrie Gray has recently received a Medal of the Order of Australia and is also Ballina Shire’s newest Senior Citizen of the Year. She met The Echo in Alstonville to talk about the ongoing crises facing our region, and what everyone can do to help.
Ms Gray has been a volunteer with the Red Cross for 40 years. Originally heading up Emergency Services in the Northern Rivers, she developed The Pillowcase Project, a school-based program that helps young people prepare for a disaster. She also works with the Rural Health Services to assist individuals struggling with mental health following disasters.
During her career with Red Cross, Kerrie Gray has been awarded Honorary Life Membership, The Distinguished Service Award, and a Forty Year Service Award.
Her two latest awards relate to her work assisting flood victims in the Northern Rivers, including coordinating a gift program, and she is still also involved in helping people who were affected by the 2019 bushfires.
She says it’s ‘really lovely’ being nominated for awards, but she’s concerned that the disasters just keep coming.
A safe symbol
Kerrie Gray moved to the Northern Rivers over 20 years ago. She has a scientific background, and originally worked at a biological and chemical research station in Sydney.
Her volunteering work began there with the Red Cross, assisting people who were coming to Australia from the Pacific Islands for craniofacial surgery.
She says she’s always liked the principles of the Red Cross, and the fact it’s recognised as a ‘safe symbol’ around the world, with everyone being treated humanely and from a position of neutrality. Ms Gray says the organisation is very active whenever there are international conflicts, providing humanitarian aid and also by negotiating behind the scenes.
The Northern Rivers looked like a war zone after the floods. Could you talk about your experiences? ‘Initially, we were isolated,’ she said. ‘Each little pocket was isolated because we’re called the Northern Rivers for a reason! There’s lots of rivers and creeks.
‘I live in Alstonville, so we were surrounded and I couldn’t get to Lismore, or Ballina. I couldn’t get to Wardell. So we did mainly phone communication, I checked on all my branches that are around here, in all the flood areas.’
As the Senior Volunteer for Red Cross Emergency Services and Deputy Zone representative for two local branches, Ms Gray had her hands full when the big evacuation centre was opened in Alstonville.
‘The first people came were from the Wardell area, they boated them as far as they could, then volunteers ran them up the road to here. Sometimes it was family members that met the boat.
‘Communication wasn’t great, because a lot of mobile towers were down or damaged.’
Psychological first aid
Kerrie Gray explained that the Red Cross has a memorandum of understanding with the state government for their role during emergencies.
She said at Alstonville their main role was providing PFA, or psychological first aid, which is mostly about listening, and talking to people who are traumatised.
Ms Gray was also coordinating and doing the rosters for other evacuation centres.
She said the different emergency organisations all worked well together, having had lots of practice with all the crises in the region, particularly since the bushfires, and doing preparation work as well, although the flooding was ‘such a big event that nobody could have envisioned it.’
She says people beyond the region still don’t understand the scale of the flood emergency, or its ongoing impacts.
‘A lot of people, their houses were destroyed, or partially destroyed. Some people are living in a house that’s in ruins around them. They have very little, and they need help. As people get older, it’s harder. And there’s not many tradespeople around. So a lot of the volunteer organisations are trying to coordinate some of that and get at least a room or two rooms built for people to be safe in their own homes.
‘Some people’s houses were totally destroyed, washed off their stumps,’ she said.
‘There are hundreds and hundreds of people that are not in pod villages, or other accommodation. They’re in motels. Some people didn’t want to be in that situation, so they’re living under canvas.’
Ms Gray said many people are unable to leave the region because their families and support networks are here, but they feel they have been forgotten.
The Red Cross Flood Appeal is no longer running (people can see where the money was disbursed here, via the Australian Charities and Not-for-profits Commission), but Kerrie Gray says there is now a need for new volunteers to be trained, for the next event.
‘Hopefully we’ll get bit of a break, and nothing happens,’ she said. ‘But you know, cyclone season’s coming, and sometimes they come down this far. So we’ve got training.’
She says there are all sorts of roles available within Red Cross Australia locally. For information about emergency work, you can email [email protected], or visit the volunteering page of the Red Cross website is here.
Never too old (or young) to help
A lot of people move to the Northern Rivers to retire. Your latest award is in the senior citizen category, but you’re obviously still extremely active and doing things. Would you like to see more older people getting involved with volunteering?
‘Yes, look, there’s a job for everyone. Everyone has a talent. Some of our members are not physically able now, because of knees or hips or whatever. But they can man the phones, they can do rosters, they can do behind the scenes work. We have all sorts of things that can be done within our organisation, and with the combat agencies as well.
‘We also need younger people coming in. And I know everyone’s busy, but I was busy when I first started, 42 years ago. You make time. And if you get a phone call to ask if you can do something, you’re a volunteer; you don’t have to help if you can’t, because of family commitments or work.’
She says the Red Cross gets no government assistance, meaning the role of almost 8,000 volunteers across Australia is absolutely crucial.
‘There’s not only these roles in emergencies, we have things that can help people on the ground. So we have a TeleCross service, which is a phone call for someone who’s isolated or disabled, in their home every day at a set time. That’s just to see that someone’s safe, because a lot of people don’t see anyone from day to day.
‘We have another one for people that are lonely. It’s called TeleChat. Once a week, someone rings and makes a connection. There’s lots of services we have, that people don’t know about. There are so many things you can do.’
She said that for people who don’t use the internet, there is information about these Red Cross services at all local council offices and libraries.
Rewards of volunteering
Kerrie Gray explained that during the flood crisis many volunteers were themselves affected and needing help, but as soon as they were able, they were helping others.
She says there is a ‘great network’ of support between the Red Cross volunteers, as well as health and wellbeing checks, and counsellors to make sure people don’t burn out, but get the help they need.
‘Often, it’s just a case of saying, Look, I need help doing this. I can’t do it on my own.’
She said her own family and friends have always been very supportive of her volunteering work, but she’s afraid the great Australian tradition of volunteerism is falling away under the pressure of modern technology, cultural changes and other pressures.
‘We’re all busy, but you can make time to help someone else,’ she said. ‘Honestly, the rewards from helping are just so great. I get a great deal of satisfaction from making someone smile, or laugh, or just helping them out with something that was very basic and very easy to organise.’
Ms Gray says that volunteering has greatly enriched her own life, as well as the lives of the people she’s been able to help. ‘Yes, and I’ve met so many amazing people along the way.’
The local number for more info about TeleCross and TeleChat is (02) 6622 3305. You can find out more about volunteering with Red Cross here.