The recent Australian bushfires drew worldwide attention, uniting people, schools, organisations and communities in a ‘call-to-action’. Individuals were wondering how they could best assist in the recovery efforts and express solidarity with affected communities.

However the reality of what had happened did not hit us until Friday 14 February, when eight Sirius College students and I stepped off a bus and on to a thick blanket of ash in Sarsfield, a farming district 3 km north-east of Bairnsdale and Inner Gippsland. Each step taken crushing the black and grey charred remains of mother-nature, which now lay scorched beneath our feet.

Yet, in all of the destruction and sorrow that surrounded us, the students gathered around a single fern shooting out of the ash offering a sense of hope, determined to start over and heal.

That evening, students and I assisted the Australian Relief Organisation in preparing and offering meals to the local residents of Sarsfield, giving us the chance to break bread with the community and share. Share not only a meal but also as much of their pain as possible, in the hope that the community would feel the empathy and strength of our nation and have one less need to worry about.

We listened to stories of lives changed, lives suddenly put on hold, as well as lives lost, forever.

Some spoke of 12 metre high flames spiralling over the road, moving onto their properties and causing great damage as they tried to defend their homes, but still considering themselves lucky because some of the walls were still standing.

Others spoke about the aftermath. The absence of wildlife and the silencing of chirps from the once thriving birdlife which residents were accustom to hearing every dawn and dusk.

As the evening drew to an end, a strong bond had been forged between Sirius College students and the community.

While students had initially set out to assist and contribute whatever they could to the Sarsfield community, it was in fact the residents who were now selflessly offering us accommodation, asking if we needed tents for the night and sharing their local produce.

Before our goodbyes could even set in, students turned to me and asked ‘can we please come again next week?’.

Reflecting on our experience during the almost four hour journey back home, we realised that the land and it’s regeneration, mirrored by the single shoot of fern, was much like the residents of Sarsfield.

While each had their own story of heartbreak, they were tough. Still standing strong, united and determined on regenerating their community, while welcoming others with open arms. The experience is one that will stay with us throughout our lives.

Thank you Sarsfield, for your warmth and true display of community spirit, welcoming us into your hearts.

And a big thank you to the Australian Relief Organisation for allowing us to be part of this wonderful experience and your efforts in Victoria’s Bushfires Appeal.