Donation centres receive overwhelming support after St Patrick's Day fires

Barb Cowley hasn’t been able to return to her home for almost a month.

Volunteer Barb Cowley among the piles of donated clothes at the Cobden Uniting Church. Picture: Christine Ansorge

Volunteer Barb Cowley among the piles of donated clothes at the Cobden Uniting Church. Picture: Christine Ansorge

But the Cobden community stalwart has had little time to dwell on that.

Mrs Cowley is part of a team of volunteers helping co-ordinate the hands-on relief effort at the town’s Uniting church.

If you ever needed proof of the spirit, strength and generosity of the Corangamite district, you only have to step inside.

It’s organised chaos. The church’s hall is packed with clothes, shoes, books, toys and bedding. Another room is brimming with food, cooking implements and toiletries, and out the back there’s donated fridges packed with goods, as well as other odds and ends from all corners of the state.

“We’ve had community members here every day helping to sort through it,” Mrs Cowley said.

People have been asked to come in and pick up what they need. The group has also co-ordinated weekly food deliveries for four weeks to more than 60 fire-affected families.

“We had all the food but people weren’t coming in because either they couldn’t or they thought others needed it more, so we started going out,” Mrs Cowley said.

“Because we’ve been contacted by some of the agencies, for example WestVic Dairy, we’ve been able to put people in touch with counsellors, helping out in that way as well.”

Mrs Cowley said as well as generous local donations and Food Share support, people had driven long distances to contribute to the relief effort – from groceries to hand-knitted blankets, quilts, money and even sewing supplies.

“We’ve had donations from far and wide, from all over Victoria. It’s been amazing,” she said.

The long hours of volunteering have been a welcome distraction for Mrs Cowley, who until this weekend had been unable to return to her Cobrico home due to the peat fires. 

“I own part of it,” she said of the smouldering swamp.

“I was told I could go home yesterday. Now I’ve got to clean up all the dust and stuff.

“It’s been good, really because I’ve had something to do, something to take my mind off it.”

Mrs Cowley is one of many, many volunteers co-ordinating donations, delivering hampers, checking on families, feeding volunteers and dropping of fodder across the whole south-west.

Terang Community Op Shop is another south-west venue that has become a base for donations.

Volunteer Andrea Balcombe said almost every kind of vehicle had rolled up out the front in the past four weeks. 

"We had a U-Haul pull up, a horse float, a bus and a furniture removal van and that was all on one weekend," she said.  

Donations have come from around the south-west and people from Melbourne, Ballarat, Geelong, and Ararat have also dropped off items. 

"We've had offers of tonnes of stuff from New South Wales and a house full of whitegoods and furniture from the other side of Melbourne. It's been amazing.

"It's been wonderful. I know it's taken a disaster to make it happen but it's brought the community together and everyone's helped. It's been terrific."

Store owner Nick Katsaros donated his vacant shop two doors away to give volunteers more room to sort through donations.    

The store has a register where people who have larger items such as furniture or whitegoods to donate, can be matched with those in need. 

She said they had a huge volume of donations since the fires and said it was starting to return to a normal level this week. 

Mrs Balcombe asked that anyone with large donations or lots of items to call ahead on 0419 314 870 first rather than dropping them into the store. Fire affected people are also welcome to call her for items they need. 

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