How it Hits Home – Leep’s Role in Supporting the Bushfire Affected Community of Lithgow

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This article was written by Katie Churchill, a local resident.

“Back in October I stopped in at the Tin Shed for a coffee after a walk, on a very rare instance of “me-time”. I was six months into my new role as a mum, and six months into maternity leave from my full-time work at Ferrero’s Nutella and Tic Tac factory in town. I loved every minute at home with my daughter, but I was looking for an opportunity to keep my adult brain trained and help people and my town while I had the time to give.

A flyer about Leep, on the wall caught my eye – it said “Looking for a way to help your local community? You’ve just found one”. Hmm, I thought, go on. It said Leep needed volunteers to help people learn how to use technology. Ah, not for me, I thought at first. I was no IT expert. “You don’t need to be an IT whiz for this role,” the flyer said. Well, in that case, I thought, then why not check it out. I am so glad I did!

Leep is a not-for-profit that builds digital literacy in local communities across Western NSW and Western Sydney, and I came on board as a Tech Mate last year. Tech Mate programs help people build basic digital skills, and the Lithgow program was launched after Leep, in partnership with Farmers NSW Hartley Branch, secured funding from Wentworth Healthcare Ltd. The program, called Farmers and Friends Online, would support communities affected by drought to get online to access drought relief information, mental health services for farmers doing it tough, and more.

Over the next few weeks I worked with Leep’s staff to get the word out around Lithgow about us starting weekly sessions that would provide free one-one-one support so that people could build basic digital skills. Within weeks we had our first mentoring session with a member of the Hartley Branch, and we quickly filled more spots. We had a second local volunteer mentor and before we knew it our weekly mentoring sessions were booked out through Christmas!

In December watching the smoke plume from the ever-closer Gospers Mountain Fire loom on the horizon, I could feel the tension building in everyone in town. My in-laws who are from Clarence moved in with us after a back-burn got out of control near Dargan and prompted evacuations. A few days before the fires impacted our local area I met with members of the Hartley Branch of NSW Farmers. During our evening together the smoke rolled in thick around us. I asked the group – “does everyone have Fires Near Me on your phone?” We started swapping names of apps and sites we each used to keep track of the bushfires. It turned out none of us used exactly the same ones – some were new to me, and others that I used were new to the group. Could that be a problem for our community? If those of us around the table who were confident using our technology to find fire info couldn’t agree on the proper sources, what did that mean for people who weren’t as tech savvy? That seemed like something Leep could help with. In discussing this further with the chair of the branch, Rachel Nicolls, and Cecily the CEO from Leep it was decided that Leep would run a workshop to bring this information to the wider community of Lithgow.

In the meantime, we had a few intense days of the fire impacting our immediate region in the days leading up to Christmas. The valleys on the north side of Lithgow all burned, impacting homes and properties, and prompting evacuations among ember attacks within town itself. Clarence and Dargan fared far worse, where they lost dozens of homes. My in-laws’ home miraculously was saved, though everything on the property outside the four walls of the house was gone. Three of their immediate neighbors lost everything. The town emerged shaken but determined to bounce back with the resiliency found in the hearts of those steeled by grit and nerve.

Though the Gospers Mountain Fire had already swept through our area, we recognised the fire season was not over and the community was still being vigilant. There is potential risk from the still unburned Hassans Walls Reserve, and through the end of January there were even some residual flare-ups around Clarence and Dargan. So we thought that spreading the word about finding fire info online was still quite relevant and could help our community be better prepared for the next bushfire threat. We wanted to make sure locals had access to these online information sources to complement the channels already in use. We set a date for a workshop and started spreading the word around town through flyers, local media, and online.

The Workies would be our spot, as they’ve hosted sessions on bushfire recovery and have been very supportive of the community through the crisis. We hoped to reach as many community members as possible at this central social hub of Lithgow. A team of Leep Tech Mates gathered in Lithgow for the workshop, to teach community members how to access emergency information online. We set up stations on different topics, so learners could drop in and choose to learn what they were interested in. We also offered information on staying safe from scams and how to be critical when choosing unofficial online sources.

Through the day we mentored six new learners and spoke with over a hundred people at the Workies. Some people already had the knowledge, at least on Fires Near Me, so we spread the word about the additional online sources that people hadn’t heard about, such as DEA Hotspots. Many people were not comfortable using their phone or computer and said they weren’t interested in learning. We offered information on Leep’s weekly Tech Mate sessions, where local volunteers meet one on one with learners to help get the hang of using a phone, tablet, or laptop. Lots of people were surprised to hear about our weekly presence here aside from the one-off workshop, to find out that Leep and its volunteers are here in Lithgow for the long-haul. Our mentoring sessions have been running since November, and we have multiple repeat learners that look forward to attending and gain new skills each week.

Leep recognizes the importance of being flexible to community needs, so we’re here in Lithgow providing free help with technology every week, and also with evening workshops on specific topics. Soon we will have a workshop called Cost Savings Online where we’ll introduce topics like how to use the internet to comparison shop before a purchase, what it’s like shopping for groceries online and how you can tap into the wealth of knowledge on the internet to save costs on things like home projects and coursework.

In early March we’ll be running a webinar version of Make Technology Part of Your Emergency Plan for anyone that missed us at the Workies, where you can tune in from your computer. We’ll also have a workshop in the coming months on how to support your health and well-being by being connected online and with technology.

I’m so glad to have gotten to speak with new people at the Workies about using technology to stay safe in an emergency, and I’ve gained a better understanding of how I can help with Leep to make a difference at home. It’s great to see our community embrace this new service, and I can’t wait to see what comes next.”

Weekly Tech Mate Sessions:

Lithgow Workies

Every Thursday 2-4pm

Make Technology Part of Your Emergency Plan – Free Webinar

Wednesday 11 March 12-1pm

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