How to be a ‘mate’ from miles away

Effort to aid communities devastated by bush fires extends all the way from Australia to Austin

A+lone+kangaroo+stares+down+the+camera+amidst+a+burnt+forest.+This+kangaroo+is+one+of+many+Australian+animals+affected+by+the+fire.+The+animal+death+toll+is+estimated+at+1+billion.+The+Key+Club+is+selling+Candy+Grams+to+raise+money+for+Port+Macquarie+Koala+Hospital.+Photo+by+Richard+Brailsford.

Richard Brailsford

A lone kangaroo stares down the camera amidst a burnt forest. This kangaroo is one of many Australian animals affected by the fire. The animal death toll is estimated at 1 billion. The Key Club is selling Candy Grams to raise money for Port Macquarie Koala Hospital. Photo by Richard Brailsford.

By Samantha Powers, McCallum High School

Email to Michelle Heustess from Paul Laws:

Subject: Cry from smoky, smoggy Melbourne

Hello Michelle,
The last few days, it’s like fog here, 24 hrs a day. Except it’s smoke from the bush fires that are still burning in so many places.
The elderly and very young are being warned to minimize [outdoor] activities. As far as air pollution is concerned, we are one of the worst cities in the world at the moment.

For the past few weeks, as news feeds have been flooded with headlines similar to the email above, you might be asking yourself, “How can I help?” It may seem difficult to make a difference from 8,464 miles away, but there are many ways Americans, Austinites, and even McCallum students have been getting involved.

Someone who knows a little bit about this is all three. Junior Helen Heustess is a citizen in Australia as well as the United States. Her mother is an Australian native, and her grandfather is currently living there in Melbourne.

“Melbourne is actually one of the worst-hit cities other than anywhere in New South Wales,” Heustess said. “It’s not a lot of open fire, but the smog over the city is pretty incredible. And by incredible, I mean devastating.”

Heustess and her family are keeping a close eye on her grandfather. For their family, as well as anyone concerned who lives far away from this disaster, the distance can be frustrating.

“There’s not a whole lot to do other than donate to any of the charities that are helping out with relief and the effort to stop the fires, which is part of what makes it so difficult: it feels like there’s not much you can do,” Heustess said.

Samantha Powers
Austinites enjoy a silent auction, live music and drinks, all to raise funds for Australian fire relief. Charity Craft Collective, a local charity group, partnered with the Little Darlin’, a local restaurant, to organize this benefit. “We all were teachers or parents of students and have known each other for the last eight years, and in the last three years [we] have started hosting benefits,” organizer Libby Brennan said. “[There are] usually one or two a year, and it just seems so seamless.” Photo by Samantha Powers.

Heustess recommends a number of reputable charities that you can donate to, including the Australian Red Cross, First Nations Communities, and Foundation for Rural and Regional Renewal.

“I personally donated to the Australian Red Cross because they’re the organization I’m most familiar with, and the one I know will spend the money responsibly even if it’s not right now,” Heustess said.

Chris Bennett is a native Texan who now lives in Australia and manages the WA/NT region of Crawford & Company Australia, an insurance relief program. His company has been busy with the mass of disaster-stricken families who have been displaced from their homes.  As of Jan. 20, they had received 1,284 bush fire claims.

“We’re talking thousands, plural, nationwide,” Bennett said. “These are just the people who have filed insurance claims that have made it to us. There are people who may not have insurance.”

Bennett explains that although there are a number of charities that people at home can donate to, it takes time for that money to trickle down to the people who need it. Bennett recommends that to make an immediate impact, concerned citizens should donate directly to people in need.

“The idea is you do a smaller amount of money straight away,” Bennett said, “so someone could have a hotel, they can have a place to live, they’ve got clothes for their kids. They can [meet] immediate needs that they have.”

Insurance companies all across Australia have set up recovery centers with information desks to aid anyone who needs it.

“One of my crew will sit in that office just to answer the question that someone may or may not know,” Bennett said, “and we don’t care if you are with us or with somebody else or you’ve got an insurance policy or not. We’ll tell you how you [can] get help.”

This unconditional compassion that Australians are showing for one another reflects a broader theme of friendship in the “land down under.”

Dave Winter
The Key Club sold Valentine’s Day candy grams and the proceeds will benefit the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital, which cares for koala bears injured in the recent Australian fires. Photo by Dave Winter.

“Australia is one of those countries where you look out for your mates,” Bennett said. “When something happens, you’ll find people who will give you time off from work to go help. When we’ve had floods, the whole town is shut down. They still paid salaries, and everyone went out and just dug people’s houses out. You really look out for your mates, and her mates and his mates.”

This generosity does not stop at the Australian coast; it reaches across the ocean all the way to Austin. Australians have “mates” living right here, and they are eager to do all they can.

Many local Austin companies, including The Little Darlin’, Antonelli’s Cheese and LOVE Cycling Studio, have been hosting benefits for fire relief. Through these benefits, citizens can get involved and feel like they’re doing more than just pressing a “donate” button on a web page.
On Jan. 26, Austinites gathered at the Little Darlin’ for drinks, live music and a silent auction. A portion of the proceeds was donated to the Red Cross and the World Wildlife Foundation. A group of former teachers called Charity Craft Collective organized the event. One of the organizers, Libby Brennan, explained why they got involved.

“Whenever something comes up, we’re just really lucky to have the resources and connections that we do to be able to host things like this,” Brennan said. “It’s just about giving back to our community.”

The event was well-attended by many Austinites eager to do their part. Dads in baseball caps sipped on beers and listened to the live music, moms in sunglasses perused the silent auction, and young children hula-hooped in the yard.

“The city of Austin, as you can tell, has no problem showing up in one way or another,” Brennan said, “whether it’s physically or if it’s through their donations.”

Even closer to home, the Mac Key Club is selling Valentine’s candy grams, which will be distributed today. The proceeds will go to the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital in Australia.

Through the devastation many Australians are facing, there is comfort in the fact that they have “mates” looking out for them all across the globe.

This story was originally published on The Shield Online on February 17, 2020.