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Sunday, July 25, 2021

Floods, drought, bushfires and pandemics – who helps the helpers?

Regional manager of the national charity GIVIT, Caroline Odgers, is on her way to the NSW village of Braidwood, fresh from a week off work, her first since she became involved in bushfire recovery in January. 

As a mum of two toddlers, Caroline’s day starts much earlier than her 7am departure, but she leaves family life behind as she drives away from Canberra in her goodie-filled van, on a foggy wintery morning.

Caroline is tasked with resupplying Braidwood-based charities with whatever they need to rebuild their community devastated by flood, droughts, bushfires and the pandemic.

In terms of charities, GIVIT is the new kid on the block.

Just 11 years old, GIVIT founder and Brisbanite, Juliette Wright, had the idea after she sought to donate her superfluous baby clothes to charity.

She preferred the clothes went to a vulnerable woman – perhaps escaping domestic violence – but was told it was unlikely to happen as they already had an abundance of baby clothes and little demand.

What they really needed was work boots, nappies and sanitary items.

After this encounter, Juliette created a website (free for both the charity and the giver) which crossmatched the specific needs of registered charities with donated items – and GIVIT was born.

GIVIT’s first match was a microwave provided to a recently widowed elderly gentleman so he could defrost his Meals on Wheels provisions.

During the 2011 Queensland floods, the website realised its full potential.

GIVIT was only five years old and completely run by volunteers, when it stepped up and became involved in natural disasters, using its website to deflect the usual inundation of public donations to provide targeted relief.

After that, GIVIT rolled out operations across the country.

Caroline has been working with the Braidwood community (among others) since January, when GIVIT came on board to assist with bushfire recovery.

She said that by that time, bushfire affected areas were already overwhelmed with unsolicited donations.

“What people really needed was clothing vouchers, fresh food and petrol vouchers,” Caroline said.

“But we received so much tin food, we’re still getting rid of it.

“People think they are being helpful, but they don’t realise the damage it causes.

“It hampers recovery, knocks out local businesses and ends up on the side of the road.

“Imagine coming home a week after the fires and you’ve lost everything, but there are pallets of tin lentils on your property.

“Lentils are great, but just in moderation.”

In March, GIVIT gathered all the unsolicited donations from affected areas and sent them to a warehouse in Sydney, where they were sorted by army and police into “like items, repackaged and logged in GIVIT’s virtual warehouse for charities to reserve what they need”.

Months later, Caroline said the relief and recovery centers were now “in a good place”.

Caroline’s first stop is Braidwood BlazeAid, where camp managers Dennis and Carol McGrath feed her bacon and eggs and show off their proud achievements in bushfire recovery.

Caroline checks in with them, listens to their stories and finds out how they’re going and what they need.

It’s not sexy; they need water, toilet paper and socks.

And they get it.

Caroline unpacks boxes from her van, hands out vouchers, shows Dennis how to work GIVIT’s redesigned website and heads off to the Braidwood Life Centre.

There, she has a cup of tea in the sunshine with the “unofficial town mayor”, Maria Bakas.

Maria tells Caroline she used to help locals fill out paperwork for government financial assistance, which was cumbersome, confusing and took hours, but the library has since shut due to COVID and she is now unable to assist.

She said the town continues to struggle from the trauma of last summer and the people of Braidwood used to meet at the community hall and share stories of survival, however the pandemic has put a stop that. 

“And we’ve already began preparing for next bushfire season,” Maria said.

GIVIT has 3,500 registered charities across the country, of which 300 are within the Capital Region.

They’ve been funded for another 12 months of bushfire recovery – meaning Caroline has a lot more trips to Braidwood in her future.

“Bushfire recovery requires a lot of time on the road; it’s best to meet the charities and hear their stories.  You can’t do this job from an office,” Caroline said.

“No matter what they’re facing, top of mind for us is to make sure charity organisations have what they need.”

The former marketing officer has been at GIVIT for four years now since the death of her beloved dad inspired a desire to change careers.

“Once Dad passed, I was getting itchy to find a cause and then I stumbled across GIVIT and now I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be.”

GIVIT’s work extends beyond bushfire regions.

“Really, we support anyone who supports people with disadvantage,” Caroline said.

Caroline heads to Captains Flat, a town of 610 people; on the way she risks her sweet persona by laughing maniacally as she drives wildly over potholes, only stopping when her attention is drawn to the landscape.

Unaffected by fires, Captains flat is remote and without industry or basic amenities like a corner store or petrol station – it has a pub that sells milk.

At the Captains Flat rugby ground, Caroline meets Chloe Pailthorpe from the Bungendore Anglican Church.

Chloe was in the process of creating an op-shop slash community centre with a coffee machine, until COVID forced its closure.

They wander through the heritage Anglican church, with unique stain glass windows and lament its closure.

Once again Caroline wants to know: how can GIVIT help? 

Next up is the Captains Flat Primary School, a little school with big ambitions.

Principal Jason Marshall leads a tour of innovate teaching techniques and Caroline is excited and asks how GIVIT can contribute.

“It’s so fitting that it’s the anniversary of my dear dad’s death,” she said while unloading boxes of goodies.

His background in teaching and Catholicism drove the creation of Carroll College in Broulee and instilled in Caroline values of community and hard work. 

Twenty-five years later, Caroline (on behalf of GIVIT) is working with the ACT Government, ACT NOwaste and SUEZ on a big community-driven project of her own.

She said sustainability was a big part of GIVIT’s ethos and the collaboration would divert useful recycled items from the Hume collection centre to people in need.

“They keep all the good stuff at Hume and GIVIT has the ‘first dibs’, meaning we register the items on our website and the interested charity will come and collect it – or we’ll help with transport.”

For more information or to donate, visit givit.org.au

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