There’s a certain zeal behind Bundaberg grandmother Mon Galvin who has just returned from two firefighting deployments, and a stint with BlazeAid repairing fences.
Mon would like to think she is a typical grandmother-of-nine, as nothing is a bother and helping comes with ease, but not many 66-year-old grandmas can say they are a volunteer rural firefighter who has spent three weeks fighting fires as well as fixing fences during one of Australia’s worst bushfire seasons.
Mon, who is also a local YMCA disability worker, said she originally took two weeks off work in January to help BlazeAid, a volunteer-based organisation that works with families and individuals in rural Australia after natural disasters such as fires and floods.
However, while with BlazeAid Mon was deployed by Queensland Fire and Emergency Service to New South Wales, and then to Canberra as part of the nation’s biggest taskforce that composed of multiple strike teams from Queensland.
BlazeAid before firefighting deployment
“The reason why I chose to do this was because I had been watching BlazeAid and I liked their approach as everything went to the job, which means it went directly to farmers,” she said.
The people who volunteer with BlazeAid help rebuild fences and structures that are lost in natural disasters.
Mon went to Woodenbong, a rural community in northern New South Wales, and she was tasked with helping a cattle farmer rebuild his barb-wire fences to keep his stock in.
“I wanted to be out in the field, you can work in places like the kitchen – and you still work hard – but I wanted to be out in the field,” she said.
Starting work with a group of three men, a doctor, an accountant, and a demolition company manager, Mon said she was chosen as the leader because of her skills gained during many of her life’s experiences.
“They were three great guys, the most beautiful, adventurous, get-in-there-and-have-a-go at life, and well-travelled, the doctor had worked in many places across Australia, and everyone was a volunteer,” she said.
“They were the most brilliant people.”
Mon said they were helping a farmer, who had been a teacher all his life, whose property had significant fire damage, but she said there was no sign of him showing the anguish he was going through.
“None of the locals sat or dwelled in their loss,” she said.
“There was gratefulness, and they were lost for words because of our help.”
After her first day of volunteering with BlazeAid Mon returned to her camp, and that evening she received a text message about a Queensland Rural Fire Service deployment to New South Wales.
By 9.30am the next morning she was on her way to help the devasted communities of the New South Wales far south coast.
“It was amazing, 12 out of the 36 deployed were girls, I have never seen such a high percentage of girls in anything I have done,” Mon said.
“We had several strike teams… it was great to see so many girls as it is very unusual.
“We were tasked to go down to Bermagui and help forestry and national parks.”
Mon said she worked in areas including the mountains behind Eden, which had hundreds of people evacuated during the devastating fires only weeks earlier.
“It was just fearsome some of the stuff that was happening,” she said.
“Many people, especially up in the hills, were still evacuated when we were there.”
She said during this first deployment the comradery between the different agencies and the community members was lovely to see.
Mon believes helping others comes easily
Mon recalled comforting a woman who was struggling emotionally after having to leave her home.
By taking the extra few moments out of her own day to listen to the women’s plight, Mon hoped it would lift the women’s spirit, and help her through the difficulties she was facing.
When asked why she cared for others the way she did, Mon replied “because it is really easy to do stuff for others”.
“I don’t have any responsibilities except my dog Rosie, and my work, and I really have so much fun doing things like this,” Mon said.
“It’s a really easy pathway to help others, and people are missing out by not doing so.”
As one of 10 children Mon said she “grew up living on next to nothing” and it was a lot of hard work, and it meant relying on each other for help and support.
“It’s an amazing feeling being part of a team, it’s something beautiful,” Mon said when speaking about her time volunteering.
“After I was finished with this five-day deployment, I went back to help BlazeAid again.”
Before her time with BlazeAid Mon said she had never worked on fences, and she learnt many new skills on the job.
“They had rain while I was a way, and the possibility of slipping was so dangerous,” she said.
“This time on my original team there was a geologist, a dietician and a nurse, so a team of seven now.
“They all had the most amazing life experiences, a fair bit of travel and definitely the giving, and only one of us had done BlazeAid before.”
Mon said the atmosphere during these days was light-hearted with a lot of laughter even though it was a tough job straining fences.
“There were some great stories, we laughed our way through some of the toughest days, and the hardest of work!
“BlazeAid, I would go back and do that any day of the week, it’s hands on and so beneficial for the communities.”
She said a lot of the BlazeAid volunteers, just like herself, had past retirement age, and some of them, such as the doctor, had plans to continue volunteering once they had finished fencing.
Just as Mon did as she was then deployed for the second time to fight fires, this time in Canberra.
“I have made life-long friends, we all swapped phone number, it was such a wonderful experience because you are with a whole community of givers,” she said.
“Everybody is open to learning, and you are choosing to be there, and you will benefit heaps from being there with all the stuff you learn, the stories you hear and the laughing you do.”
Since 1989 Mon has been a single mother and she said it was instilled in her at an early age to be independent, but no matter what it was also important to do whatever she could to help others.
“I actually decided at Christmas my kids didn’t have the need that the people who had been burnt out did, so I decided their Christmas presents was money for BlazeAid and I sent them a receipt of the donation,” Mon said.
“Then one of them sent me back a receipt of her donation along with and a receipt of my donation, and that was my Christmas present too. This was really lovely to see as the need from these people is so big, compared to the need from people who have a normal life happening, it was beautiful.”