'New phase of recovery' for South Arm with food pantry asked to close

A shipment of food is received at the South Arm Hall in February.
A shipment of food is received at the South Arm Hall in February.

"If anyone wants to know how difficult it is to be a councillor sometimes, then this is it," Cr David Jones said last Thursday when council was deliberating over a request for a two-month extension to keep the South Arm Hall food pantry open.

"Because I'm reminded of the wisdom of Solomon who had two mothers that thought they owned the same child. There's really no right answer here."

Tensions over the conflict of use of the hall have been boiling for months now.

The pantry at the hall has been operating there since the beginning of the year, and serving as a hub for fire-affected community members to source grocery staples and other bits and bobs to support them to remain on their land during the long recovery.

It's also acted as a space for people to vent, cry, laugh, meet with service providers, and even take a shower or do a load of washing.

"My major aim was, yes, providing goods and services, but a place of safety that when you feel like you can't continue and you're about to give up, that you come, have a cuppa, fill your belly and talk to other community members who are feeling the same or facing the same struggle and demons," Beck Beverley, who was instrumental in the pantry's establishment at the hall, said.

And there's no doubting that some community members have benefitted greatly from it being there.

But nine months after the fires changed the Valley for good, some are also keen for the recovery efforts to take on a new form, which includes holding social events at their beloved hall - something which has been nearly impossible with the sheer amount of good will that has been stacked high in the hall all year.

Council General Manager Michael Coulter said the horde of donations had also become a potential fire hazard, and created waste and pest issues.

A planned refurbishment of the hall's kitchen, funded from the bushfire grant, had also been twice delayed.

On May 5 Mr Coulter issued a request to Beck Beverley "that the food pantry operations cease on 31 July" - a wind-down period of nearly three months.

"The very reason we gave plenty of notice is we didn't want the issues of transition we are having now," Mr Coulter said.

And an offer to make a representation to council about the issue was given in the notice.

"But we heard nothing until last week," Mr Coulter said on Friday.

Councillors were clearly moved by Beck's emotional address to council last Thursday, in which she pleaded for councillors to consider that some residents had only just started to seek out help, after months of trust-building.

She asked for a two month transition to help ensure pathways to service providers were in place for those people.

Beck said she had already been in talks with charities to collect the majority of excess donations, and was happy for events to be organised at the hall. She said the hub could be more flexible, and that the refurbishment to the kitchen need not be delayed any longer.

Council was split in its deliberation to uphold the General Manager's recommendation that no more than one week's extension be given.

I think one week is quite tough, I'd just like to see a little bit of gentleness around this.

Cr Susan Jenvey

"I think the hall needs to be the hall it was prior to the eighth of November ... And I think it's time to help that community get back to a more positive atmosphere," Cr Janine Reed said.

In the end they voted 4:3 in favour of the recommendation, meaning the South Arm Hall pantry is to cease operations from this Friday.

"Thankyou to everyone who has helped and done such a wonderful job at the South Arm Hall. It has been a very good thing for a lot of people. People have found solace and happiness and friendships," long-time hall committee member Anama Tesser said, who stepped down at the AGM on Saturday.

And yes, we're still in recovery - that is going to take a long time. But it's time now to move to a different phase of the recovery process. And it's time for the community to steer its own recovery.

"It would be nice to see things like yoga and art sessions, monthly morning teas or barbecues held at the hall.

"And all the services that have been at the hall will still be welcomed. The community is not going to lose them.

"I'm really looking forward now to the community coming back from this awful tragedy in the best way they can - and I'm sure the new committee will try their hardest to make sure that happens."

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