The love Winton local and proud Gungarri woman Sandy Gillies has for her community is apparent as soon as you start talking to her – and becomes clearer as she talks about the impact of the 2019 flood event on her family and friends.
Sandy’s local knowledge was instrumental in ensuring those worst affected quickly received the help and the care they needed, as did her experience of flood.
“I was working for the CBA Bank in Charleville in 1990 when a big flood went through the area,” Sandy said.
“People were just walking around in a daze and didn’t have a clue what to do. It was because of that I decided on a completely different career and went into nursing.”
Sandy’s lived experience soon led her to roles in the mental health field, eventually joining the Western Queensland Primary Health Network in 2017, working out of Winton.
“I was born and bred in Winton,” she said.
“It’s a good little town, full of fantastic people with an interesting culture. They will never let anyone sit down with nothing; they’ll always give someone a feed if they need it, or money or a lift. I’ve always been like that too, it’s the town I was brought up in.”
Nearly 30 years after her experience in Charleville, the 2019 monsoon flood event devastated farmland from Winton to the Gulf. This time, Sandy was in the thick of the response.
“I decided to get amongst it and use my connections in the community to help bring attention to my patch, identifying that we needed psychological support fast to deal with the initial shock,” she said.
“My dad had a pretty good reputation in the area so people that trusted him trusted me. When the flood hit, that helped a lot. It’s quite humbling to be held in that kind of regard.”
Sandy understands that communication, planning and listening are critical for people to heal and rebuild their lives.
“After the flood, a lot of people were staying on their farms taking a ‘we’ll be alright, mate’ approach, thinking they were the only ones dealing with stuff or there was someone worse off than them,” she said.
“Through our work we’ve help de-stigmatise help-seeking behaviour. We held a forum and the majority of people who attended were men - roo shooters, builders, farmers and contract workers. We used that as an opportunity to invite them to apply for the financial support and assistance available at the time; we also started to talk about some of the things they had witnessed like massive loss of livestock.
“As a result, these men started to communicate and open up – showing the human side of the disaster. We gave people permission to say ‘I’m not OK’, that meant we started a journey with them.”
Sandy strongly promotes the need for communities to develop the skills of locals so they can more quickly provide effective support to those in need during similar catastrophic events.
“Grow your own champions so when a disaster comes they can hold the fort until help arrives,” she advises.
“We’ve seen so many disasters; we need to build local people’s skills around recognising psychological distress. Knowing what to do from that perspective and where to go immediately before the choppers come, or before aid or emergency centres arrive, builds a more resilient community.”
Recognised as a tireless community worker and local volunteer, Sandy was recently elected onto the Winton Shire Council.
“I’ve been raised on both sides by families who gave – people who have volunteered their time, always helping up the less fortunate,” she said.
“It’s in my blood. You help someone today and you’d like to think that when you need it that someone will be there for you. That has happened to me. The humanity and generosity of people has come back to me and assisted me. It’s the right thing to do, but it’s the ‘country’ way too; we look after people, no one’s a stranger, they’re just a friend you haven’t yet made.
“I’m just being myself and doing my job - I’m there to make a difference, I’m not there for the thanks. Those people are my people, we’re all there to help each other, taking responsibility for our community.”
In October 2020 the Australian Government released After the flood: A strategy for long-term recovery. The Strategy was developed by the National Drought and Flood Agency, with and for communities affected by the 2019 North Queensland flood event. This blueprint for the region’s future can be used by anyone with a stake in its long-term prosperity. You can read more about it here.