The January Waroona fires were still burning when Willetton mother of three Chelle Fisher decided that she needed to do something to help. Chelle and her family had been evacuated a few years previously with the devastating Kelmscott/Roleystone fires, and she knew exactly how the evacuees would be feeling.
The fire, which burned for seventeen days through 69,000 hectares, destroyed over 180 buildings, including more than 120 houses. Many were in the small town of Yarloop, which was almost wiped out by the blaze. School was due to go back in less than three weeks, but there were hundreds of kids who had lost everything.
Chelle Fisher, second from right, with friends and helpers in front of the truck that took the supplies to Yarloop
Chelle started by doing a search on Facebook and all the charity websites to see if there was an appeal specifically targeting helping the kids get back to school. When she couldn’t find one, she started her own page, the Waroona Bushfire Back to School Appeal.
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Within a few hours, she had over 900 members, all wanting to help.
Chelle made the decision to start her own appeal because she wanted to ensure that every cent she raised, and every donation she sourced would go directly to the people who needed it.
“So many people thanked me for opening a door to directly help those affected,” Chelle said. “They knew exactly where their donations were going to and I am glad I chose the appeal over making a donation. I know the thousands of others who made that choice too are satisfied in knowing that we truly made a difference. That's a wonderful feeling.”
Taking donations to affected families
Did she realise the magnitude of what was going to happen? “I think I underestimated how big of a task it would actually be,” Chelle laughed. “I just thought I would collect a few donations for 60 or so kids, and then drop it down to them. It wasn't until I started the page and got 900 members within a few hours that I realized how big of a challenge it would be.”
The ‘few donations for 60 or so kids’ ended up filling a three tonne truck, and more than 20,000 individual items were collected and stored in Chelle’s home until they were transported to Yarloop in late January.
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After three weeks of collecting, sorting and packing, The Appeal ended up supplying back to school kits for 200 children, with a second pack for each child full of snacks for their first week. So many goods were donated, Chelle used the excess to fill an extra 100 backpacks which were delivered to the Smith Family.
But the Appeal wasn’t all smooth sailing. “I was a little disheartened when the State Government made the announcement that they would pay for every child’s school supplies, uniforms and stationary. We had just reached 100% of our target and it left us wondering where that left our appeal,” Chelle said. “We soldiered on ahead, committed to what we had set out to do. What surprised me though, was that on the day of delivery, families still had not been contacted regarding how the State Government would help them. Had we have aborted our appeal these kids would have started their first day with nothing.”
Delivering donations to families
How did Chelle mobilise so many people to contributing to the Appeal? “I posted it on all the bushfire related pages as well as my personal timeline and local business pages and just asked people to share. It was mainly individuals who donated, many of whom were struggling themselves to make ends meet,” Chelle explained. “We had a lot of kids use their pocket money to buy items, and they personally handed it to me saying they wanted me to pass it on to the kids who lost their homes."
"We also had a lot of FIFO workers from up North donate in big quantities either through buying online at Officeworks or putting their money together to get the gift vouchers we needed. We had people from all over Australia donate in fact.”
Was it only individuals who wanted to contribute to the Appeal? “We had a few businesses who contacted us to donate. Coles in Mandurah, Sportpower in Belmont and Kleenaid for tissues. Rent WA donated the truck to take it all down. Others who helped were Woolies, Officeworks and Big W.” But ultimately, it was mostly individuals and families who supplied the majority of the donations, and friends who helped sort and pack. Chelle said “Everything I asked was done, nothing was ever too hard for anyone. The amount of people who contributed was huge, and if I needed help someone was there to help me.”
When I went to visit, the sheer quantity of donated goods was physically overwhelming – hundreds of backpacks neatly stacked ready to be shipped, mountains of boxes filled with supplies. I wondered what her children thought. “Our family has always been big on helping others in need so it came as no surprise to them,” Chelle said. “My husband is amazing and his support throughout really helped me get through three long weeks with very little sleep. My kids were just as fantastic, pitching in with sorting and counting when they could.” Everything else had to take a back seat, including work (Chelle owns a tour company) and sleep. “I was so sleep deprived – up until 1am, up at 6am the next day,’ Chelle laughed.
On Friday January 29th Chelle drove the truck crammed with donations to Yarloop where families were waiting to greet her. The feeling she got when distributing the bags she explained, could only be described as winning the jackpot lotto. “I knew that by doing this meant that we would be lifting a huge load off the families, but I didn't really understand how much it meant to them until I was actually handing them out at Cookernup Hall and saw all of their faces. Kids with big beaming grins on their faces and mums with tears rolling down their faces because they were so appreciative of what we had done.”
Chelle, touring with Down Under Discoveries
So what has she been doing since the Appeal ended? “Sleeping,” laughed Chelle. “Exhaustion kicked in as I dropped the truck off on Friday afternoon and my husband drove me home from there. We spent most of the weekend relaxing. Sunday was a big clean-up day inside the house, it's nice to have a clean home again.”
Even though her Facebook Appeal now has almost two and a half thousand members, and Chelle was featured in a story by the West Australian, she is still incredibly modest and takes a pragmatic view of recent events. “We are thrown some pretty crappy curve balls in life and I am aware how an event like the fires can have a traumatic effect on children and their families. This whole thing though really has made me look back and be really appreciative of what I have and the support network around me. Makes me proud to be an Aussie.”