Friday, November 8, 2019, is a day school principal Sarah Parker will never forget.
As her much-loved Bobin Public School burned to the ground during last summer's catastrophic bushfires, Sarah had just one thing on her mind.
"The children and their wellbeing, that's all that mattered. The day before the fires hit, our then-principal Diane [Myer] had a gut feeling the fires might change direction, so she declared the school closed," Sarah, 44, tells Woman's Day from the students' community garden where they're tending to the newly bloomed sunflowers.
"Our little village, population 155, was devastated. We raised our two daughters here – it's a special place. Many lost their homes, and while we lost the school, we never gave up. We were determined to rebuild bigger and better than before – and that's exactly what we've done!"
Anyone who has spent time at Bobin Public School, which was established in 1883, and is located on the NSW Mid North Coast, knows it's something special.
Meeting all 13 students – Ashling, Sebastian, Tristan, Sarah, Gemma, Tyler, Jada, Charlize, Quill, Arthur, Arryn, Molly and Jack – it's hard not to feel overwhelmed by how much they've had to endure.
"Some students were involved in frontline firefighting as they fought to save their own homes, while others managed to make it to evacuation centres. Sadly, two of our families lost their homes – and some are still living in temporary dwellings on their properties.
"We knew we had to get them back into a supportive learning environment – albeit temporary," Sarah explains.
"Within a week we were invited by Wingham Public School – a half-hour drive from Bobin – to build a school within a school. We had our own classroom, and the canteen ladies even cooked for us! It was a real eye-opener to go from 13 students to a school of over 300, but it worked!"
Meanwhile, in typical country spirit, the community came together to rebuild their own school. With an amazingly supportive regional office on board, a team of around 40 local contractors worked day and night to finish the build.
"Within 90 days from burning down, we were ready to go! The first thing to rise out of the ashes was the school – it became a real symbol of hope for the village."
Sarah and her support teaching staff knew the children needed processing time after such a trauma.
"We put together a very hands-on curriculum with a heavy focus on the importance of the creative arts when it comes to healing and recovery," she explains.
"There's painting, drama, sport, film, music and gardening, which have complemented their normal studies. When signs of strain surfaced, we encouraged them to develop listening skills, to share their stories, and to understand we're all in this together."
But it is the special mural from famous Australian wildlife artist Peter Schouten that has provided one of the most beautiful backdrops for learning, and a real reason to love coming to school.
"He's a wonderfully generous soul – it's actually a gift for the entire community. His contribution features the Manning River turtle and the beautiful platypus – it's been really inspiring for the children," says Sarah.
"Another local, Sam Everett, who lost her home in the fires, now oversees the student mural program. Losing everything has allowed us to explore fantastic new initiatives and reinvigorate our teaching – it's been so cathartic for everyone."
Sarah can't believe the kindness extended from around Australia – and the world.
"We had schools from the Netherlands, Canada, UK and New Zealand write to us – there's been hundreds of well-wishing cards.
"It has truly touched us – we couldn't have done it without the love and support from so many. The children will forever be thankful, knowing they're not forgotten."
Bobin Public School was burned to the ground, and the children were travelling to another school to do their learning.
The town was trying to work out how to rebuild the heart of their community, which was so important to them.
It was almost impossible to imagine that so much good could come out of such a sad time for the village.
Ten-year-old Maia Oates was a student at Bobin Public School when the bushfires hit. After a visit to her dear grandad's home of 40 years that had been destroyed in the fires, Maia asked principal Sarah if she could continue working on a story she had already started to write.
"It was early morning, and Maia had presented news to her class about her visit to her pop's place. Afterwards, she asked if she could sit down and finish her story – of course I said yes," says Sarah.
"At recess she said she'd finished. I read it and cried. Then I read it to the children and staff, and everyone was crying – what a beautiful writer.
"She asked for all the children to contribute with the illustrations. The book is a wonderful collaboration of paintings, collages and drawings, and we've self-published with lots of help from our community – I'm so proud."
Maia has since moved to nearby Wingham with her family.
"What a generous soul to hand over her story to the entire school – a real legacy," says Sarah. "I encourage everyone to buy a copy of The Little Lady – it will restore your faith in knowing that the world really is in very good hands."
To buy a copy ($20 plus postage), visit bobinschoolpublications.com or phone (02) 6550 5147. All proceeds go to Bobin Public School P&C.