Staff from the University of Wollongong’s Batemans Bay and Bega campuses have been recognised in the annual Vice-Chancellor’s Awards for their work in supporting their communities during the Black Summer bushfires on the South Coast.
Jaimey Facchin, Campus Manager of UOW Batemans Bay, and Sam Avitaia, Campus Manager of UOW Bega, both received the Vice-Chancellor’s Special Award in acknowledgement of the tremendous responses of both campuses during the days and weeks after the bushfires that devastated communities at the beginning of 2020.
Nicola Bath, Learning Development Lecturer and Administrative Assistant at UOW Batemans Bay, received the Excellence in Community Engagement Award for her immense contribution to helping others during the crisis.
Ms Bath was at the campus in Batemans Bay as bushfires surrounded the town, taking in and feeding community members, ensuring they had a place to rest and sleep, and coordinating logistics with staff and students.
It was a heartbreaking time for the Batemans Bay and Bega communities, but the staff at both campuses did what they could to help, often while their own homes were under threat.
“Receiving this award is a great honour but also a reminder of the devastating events that unfolded last summer,” Ms Bath said.
“It is a tribute to all the courageous members of the community who sheltered at the Batemans Bay Campus during the fires and to my amazing family, friends and colleagues who supported me”.
In Batemans Bay, bushfires engulfed the coastal community and its suburbs over New Year’s Eve. Hundreds of locals took refuge at the campus on Hanging Rock Drive, including a newborn baby, children, dogs, elderly couples, birds, and even a horse.
There was no internet, communications were down, and it was a mad scramble to find a place for everyone.
“It has been a really crazy time for us,” Ms Facchin said. “The fires began in November, around Kings Point, Durras and Bawley Point, and we were helping students throughout that time. It was really a crisis that went on for months for us. Then everything intensified over New Year’s Eve and it was like that for weeks.
“We have a really close connection with the community here. Most of the staff on this campus have been students at UOW, and now work here. It is a special place to us. We wanted to protect the university but also protect and help our community in whatever way we could.”
Ms Facchin gave special mention to Professor Alison Jones, UOW’s Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Health and Communities), who organised for groceries to be delivered to the Batemans Bay campus in the days after the fires, when the staff were struggling to feed all the people they had taken in. Professor Jones also nominated Ms Facchin and Ms Avitaia for the Vice-Chancellor’s Special Award.
“We were able to give toiletries, bag of groceries, batteries to students and to people in the community who couldn’t get home or had lost everything. It was so helpful and made a big impact,” Ms Facchin said.
A week later, it was Bega’s turn. Just as the South Coast was reeling from the New Year’s devastation, fire swept into the Bega Valley. Again, the campus – which never lost phone or internet - became a place of refuge for the local community.
Ms Avitaia said more than 50 people, including staff, students, and friends, took shelter at the UOW Bega campus, or used it as a communications hub. This continued for many weeks, as the community started to pick up the pieces of the catastrophe, with internet and power out through large swathes of the region.
“It is humbling to receive a Vice-Chancellor’s Awards,” Ms Avitaia said. “We just did what we needed to do at the time for our community, like anyone would do. We responded to what happened at the time. It is nice to be recognised but it was something that anyone would do in the same circumstances.”
In a true example of their community spirit, Ms Facchin and Ms Avitaia have decided to donate their prize money from the Vice-Chancellor’s Special Award to helping the community through bushfire-related research.
They will donate their joint $4000 winnings to UOW’s Global Challenges Program, which earlier this year announced that half of their research grants will be set aside for disaster response on the South Coast.
“It has given us the opportunity, through the prize money, to contribute to further bushfire and emergency response research,” Ms Avitaia said.
“To look at how we can help our community, how we do this better, how we can contribute to research to help these disasters to not happen again.
“We want to make sure that other communities are not in the same position we were in.”
Jaimey Facchin and Sam Avitaia. Photo: Nicky Bath