Bit­ter­sweet cel­e­bra­tion

Kyabram Free Press - - NEWS - By Charmayne Al­lison

LIZ Spicer still strug­gles to de­scribe what she saw the day she ar­rived in Strathewen fol­low­ing Black Satur­day.

A town de­voured by bush­fires, the coun­try­side scarred and fam­i­lies left without homes, pos­ses­sions — and many with ach­ing holes where loved ones used to be.

‘‘It was like a war zone where the fa­thers didn’t come home,’’ she said.

‘‘It was a war against a fire — and the big­gest dis­as­ter Vic­to­ria has seen for a long time, there was just so much loss and death. What I saw and heard haunts me to this day.’’

Liz was among a num­ber of chap­lains who ar­rived in the Strathewen, King Lake and St An­drews dis­trict the day after the dev­as­tat­ing bush­fires.

And who stayed long after the smoke cleared.

‘‘The chap­lains re­mained after a lot of the work­ers left be­cause they were asked to stay by the lo­cals,’’ Liz said.

‘‘One girl cried when I said I needed to cut my time down and said, ‘Are you go­ing to leave us too?’

‘‘That’s when I de­cided I’d stay.’’

Re­leased by her school, Liz trav­elled to the dis­trict two days a week for the next two years.

She prayed with them, cried with them and lis­tened to their sto­ries.

For many, she was just that con­stant pres­ence they needed — that gal­vanis­ing taste of sta­bil­ity after ev­ery­thing else had crum­bled around them.

Jammed in a tiny car loaded up with gifts, sup­plies and home­made meals from Kyabram lo­cals, Liz trav­elled down each week.

It was Ray Wade’s gin­ger fluffs that dis­ap­peared the fastest.

‘‘Those af­fected by the fires didn’t have kitchens, so they were ec­static about the home­cook­ing I’d bring,’’ Liz said.

‘‘Kyabram was so gen­er­ous through­out those years. But the fires had touched so many peo­ple. Even peo­ple in Ky had fam­ily in those places.’’

Eight years on, the scar­ring left by Black Satur­day re­mains in the dis­trict. But it’s be­gin­ning to heal. Re­cently, Liz trav­elled the fa­mil­iar roads to Strathewen once again — but this time for a cel­e­bra­tion.

Strathewen Pri­mary School had reached its cen­te­nary.

The school build­ing, charred and hol­lowed by the fires, had been re­built brick by brick. It stood there, a tes­ta­ment to the re­silience of the Strathewen com­mu­nity, an act of de­fi­ance to the fires that had taken so much.

It was a bit­ter­sweet day for Liz as she was re­united with the chil­dren, par­ents and school staff she had grieved with eight years be­fore.

‘‘It was spe­cial, but un­der­pinned with sad­ness,’’ Liz said.

‘‘It was good to go back there and cel­e­brate rather than cry. But be­cause my con­nec­tion with them had stemmed from the deaths and trauma of the fires, it was still con­fronting.’’

Set into the wall of the en­trance to the school were some bricks that stood out from the rest, in­scribed with the names of peo­ple pre­cious to the school com­mu­nity.

One had tiny draw­ings of a cake, a cross and a smiley face and the words ‘‘Liz Spicer, Vicar of Strathewen’’ carved into it.

This gesture, how­ever small, was im­bued with the sheer vol­ume of thank­ful­ness Strathewen res­i­dents felt to­wards the chap­lain who stayed by their side when they needed her the most.

This gesture is echoed in the words of Mish Ness, a par­ent and vol­un­teer worker from Strathewen.

‘‘Liz came bear­ing sponge cake and hugs which she dis­pensed with laugh­ter or tears — whichever was needed,’’ she said.

‘‘She sat with us, stood be­side us and walked with us and in do­ing so gave us the strength and courage to do what we couldn’t do alone.

‘‘There were times when I was so steeped in grief I thought my heart would stop beat­ing. Liz was my strength in those times. I feel like she saved my life.’’

Strathewen's Mish Ness and Kyabram chap­lain Liz Spicer at Strathewen Pri­mary School's cen­te­nary.

A brick of the re­built Strathewen Pri­mary School com­mem­o­rates Kyabram chap­lain Liz Spicer.

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