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REBUILD OUR TOWNS: How one woman is helping Victoria's Swifts Creek rebuild after devastating bushfires

The tiny town of Swifts Creek is blessed with its own real-life guardian angel.

By Lizzie Wilson
With a population of just 300 people, the tight-knit community of Swifts Creek in Victoria's beautiful East Gippsland is determined to rebuild and look after each other in the true spirit of Aussie mateship.
And there is no better mate in these tough times than Reverend Rowena Harris, a real-life guardian angel, who selflessly dedicates her life to helping others.
As bush chaplain for the High Country district, she oozes so much kindness it's hard to imagine anyone with a bigger heart or a more welcoming smile.
When bushfires tore through her region earlier this year, Rowena, 58, was one of the first in the frontline to help devastated families who lost everything.
"It's my calling in life to be there from the get-go when disaster and tragedy strikes," she tells Woman's Day from her home in regional Victoria.
"We're a small community like many others across Australia who got hit hard by the drought, and then came the terrible bushfires – goodness me, even my faith was tested!"
Rowena helped in 2018 to establish a community-based initiative known as the Mountains Project, which is designed to support, empower and encourage those who live in East Gippsland's bushfire and drought areas.
The January bushfires ravaged the lush region of Swifts Creek in Victoria. Image: Supplied
"It started by accident when the nearby Bairnsdale Community began donating frozen meals for families who were finding it hard to put food on the table during the drought," she says.
"I got to thinking that we can do even more, so I set it up officially as a charity, and the rest is history!"
Rowena says a range of services and supplies for the needy are provided by the Uniting Church of Australia's Frontier Services, which prides itself on standing by people in the bush.
"When the fires came, I was evacuated to the beach in nearby Mallacoota, and I looked around at the terror and despair, and I was determined I would do everything I could to help my community," she says.
"Small gestures of kindness, but they make a difference. I've delivered food for humans and pets, I organised a filled toiletry bag for each of the high school kids and paint smocks and library bags for the little ones.
Rowena (pictured) helped in 2018 to establish a community-based initiative known as the Mountains Project, which is designed to support, empower and encourage those who live in East Gippsland's bushfire and drought areas. Image: Supplied
"Thankfully, only two homes were lost in our area, but so much collateral damage came with that. It has been absolutely gut-wrenching to see so much suffering."
Tragically for the Sheluchin family from the nearby town of Omeo, their plans to build their dream retirement home came crashing down on January 4 this year. For Kim and husband Glen, it's a day that will haunt them forever.
"The fire hit us pretty hard, and we did our best to save what we could, but we lost all the building and contents for our new home. It was just devastating,' Kim says, wiping away tears.
"We did manage to save most of our animals, which has been a godsend. I care for my mum Fay, and she's had to move into a small caravan while we rebuild.
"One of the first on the scene that day was the wonderfully kind Rowena. She is so caring, and has been delivering hampers and hugs ever since! The aftermath of fire is overwhelming, and one minute you're coping, the next you're curled up on the floor crying your eyes out.
"Rowena has been there to help mop up the tears and has delivered us the best gift we could have wished for – she has given us hope.
"And with hope comes new beginnings. We will get through this."
The Sheluchin family, Kim and husband Glen (pictured), lost their entire dream retirement home in the fires. Image: Supplied

HOW TO HELP SWIFTS CREEK

During such challenging times, every little bit helps.
• To donate supplies for distribution to the hard-hit East Gippsland region contact Reverend Rowena Harris at the Swifts Creek Mountains Project Facebook page or email her directly
facebook.com/RevRowenaSwiftsCreek, highcountrypatrol@gmail.com
• A must for the 2021 bucket list is a visit to the Swifts Creek region, an area regarded as one of the real gems in country Victoria.
Located on the Great Alpine Road in the beautiful Tambo Valley, you can venture low for some of the most magnificent beaches, or go high into the picturesque Victorian Alps.
visiteastgippsland.com.au/swifts-creek
• Online orders are still available for delivery at the amazing Ensay Winery.
This popular vineyard is a family-owned small business nestled in the picturesque hills of the Tambo Valley.
ensaywinery.com.au
• When you can, you must drop in and say hi to the friendly team at the Swifts Creek Bakery, which serves the best traditional meat pie you'll ever have!
9 McMillan Ave, Swifts Creek,
 (03) 5159 4208
• Rowena is also calling on all knitters to help out by knitting scarves and gloves for her community, which will suffer even more when winter hits.
Please email Rowena for sizes and pattern ideas.

Rebuild our towns

There's not a single Australian who hasn't had their hearts broken by the horrific bushfires that have swept through our country. The road to rebuild will be long but as a nation we will: brick by brick, fence by fence.
Bauer Media launched this campaign to help our neighbours in their time of need.
Each week Bauer's portfolio of magazines (print and digital), led by Woman's Day, will shine a spotlight on a town sharing information with our readers about how they can help, from the best fundraisers to donate to that specifically benefit the locals, to products they can buy from that town or region that support small businesses there.
We'll highlight the farmers who need fencing supplies, the schools which are short of books and pencils, the yoga school that needs mats or how to plan a getaway to the region when the time is right to bolster their local tourism industry.
The Rebuild Our Towns campaign is centred on the fact that practical help doesn't have to cost a fortune.
Our love and thoughts go out to every person, but actions speak louder than words, so join us to make a difference and help our heartland heal.

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