At a time when many Aussie kids are heading back to school after fun-filled holidays, young Mallacoota student Jess Tregellas carries the weight of the world on her shoulders. Cutting a lonely figure amongst the charred remains of what was once her school community garden and chicken coop, she's one of the many innocent children who endured the trauma of the New Year bushfires.
But while she has seen and been through more anguish and heartbreak than most adults will experience in a lifetime, this feisty grade sixer from Victoria's East Gippsland region has no time for wallowing self-pity. For this stoic and spritely teen her one mission is to make her beloved hometown shine once again.
"I've never been so scared – we were running for our lives. Dad made us practice the getaway but nothing prepares you when it actually happens. Mum screamed "we have to run!" The sky was a yukky black colour that turned to blood red and the embers were flying all around us - I couldn't stop shaking, it was worse than any horror film, and for weeks I've had these awful nightmares, but they've stopped now.
"I'm excited to get back to school and we can start to rebuild our community garden, and welcome a family of chickens to their new home! We lost about eight in the fire and I think we should name one of them Bushy and make something that was really bad into something positive," the 12-year-old tells Woman's Day.
Jess, along with her dad Mark, a retired policeman known locally as 'Trigger', mum Cate, an active 'cooterite' who works at the local grocery store, older sisters Emily, 15, and Sarah, 16, and a menagerie of animals including three dogs, two cats, five guinea pigs and four goldfish, spent a terrifying two days at the local boat ramp where residents and holiday-makers huddled for safety - a place where spirits could not be broken.
For Cate, it was a conversation with her three girls that night that brought tears to her eyes.
"Emily and Sarah started plotting ways to help when this was all over. Jess chipped in and said her focus would be the school. Her plan, that all 126 students from prep to grade 12 at Mallacoota College plant a tree and rebuild the kitchen garden and a house for the chickens, and watch their little school grow back one day at a time.
"I looked at my girls and have never felt more proud - this planet is in good hands as it happens," she adds.
WATCH: These two koalas rescued from the bushfires are eating again. Story continues below...
A month on since raging fires ripped their community to shreds, one blessing for Mallacoota is that no one lost their life. With a population of 1000 that skyrockets over the summer months with hundreds of tourists flock to the area this normally vibrant town is exhausted, though relief, not grief, is the order of play.
Roads into and out of this once shining jewel are beginning to reopen, with many locals returning to find their homes burned to the ground.
Young Jess now worries for her school buddies, sharing one mate's tragic story that would break the hardest of hearts.
"I don't want to say her name because she isn't back in town yet - but she knows her house is gone. She has only what possessions her family got out when they evacuated. The most amazing thing is she still managed to find a positive side saying at least now she doesn't have to clean her bedroom anymore!" Jess says smiling.
"Our house was saved by our neighbours, the local post master Pam, and another angel Monica - we're so grateful. The four gold fish didn't make it but at least they know we tried. My two horses Romeo and Buddy survived. With so many animals lost and the lucky ones rescued, when I finish school I want to be a wildlife worker, or a vet.
"I was born in the back of an ambulance on the side of a bush road up here 12 years ago - this is my hometown so please don't forget us. Come for a visit and I'll take you to my favourite beach, Bastion Point - minus the smoke and the embers, there's not a more beautiful place on this earth."
How to help Mallacoota
• Make a contribution to rebuilding Mallacoota College community garden and chicken coop. Call Oaklands Barn & Garden Centre in the coastal neighbouring town of Pambula (02) 6495 7257. Place an order with any one of the friendly staff and vouchers will be held by the nursery until the school is ready for delivery of an order.
• Help fund the local Mallacoota Wildlife Shelter Fire Relief Fund to heal our little critters injured in the fires gofundme.com/f/mallacoota-wildlife-shelter-fire-relief-fund
• Donate to local Mallacoota teacher Carol Hopkins' fund who has the full support of the Mallacoota Lions Club. All funds go straight back into the community gofundme.com/f/mallacoota-bushfire
• Buy a Kmart voucher for a local hero doing it tough through Mallacoota RSL.
• Make a trip to Mallacoota and book a cabin or site at one of the caravan parks – Mallacoota Foreshore Holiday Park (03) 5158 0300, Mallacoota Beachcomber Caravan Park (03) 5158 0233, Mallacoota's Shady Gully Caravan Park (03) 5158 0362, A'Wangralea Caravan Park (03) 5158 0222
• Have a day out at the Wild Harvest Seafood Festival, April 3-5 wildharvestseafoodfestival.com
• Bring an empty esky and head to one of the region's best butchers. Ask for Ferret and Bonnie at Mallacoota Butchers, 47 Maurice Avenue, Mallacoota (03) 5158 0359
• Buy an IGA voucher (excluding cigarettes and alcohol) for a family doing it tough. Owner Robert Phillips and daughter Leanne will gift your voucher to needy locals. Call Mallacoota IGA (03) 5158 0604
• Don't forget how beautiful this little gem really is! Book a holiday visiteastgippsland.com.au/mallacoota
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.