Tom watched local firefighters save his family farm from a bushfire in Braidwood, NSW, five years ago when he was 14 years of age. That experience, plus three generations of volunteer firefighters in his blood, inspired Tom to sign up with the NSW Rural Fire Service the following year.
Today, 19-year-old Tom continues the family legacy but the Black Summer Bushfires of 2019-20 took a toll on him physically. He worked 69 days straight at the frontline. First fighting fires in Armadale, then returning home in time to fight the Braidwood fires in his hometown.
In Armadale, he suffered smoke inhalation when his team’s truck caught on fire. In Braidwood his team was trapped in a village for 10 hours surrounded by fire. Tom faced the fires despite recovering from two hand surgeries from a rugby injury earlier that year.
“It was tiring, and I tried to mostly use my uninjured hand, but there was a new front every day and you had the adrenaline to keep you going”, Tom said.
However, fighting the fires caused complications with his hand, undoing the work from the surgeries. In early 2021, he went back to hospital for hand fusion. This not only caused him a loss of income, but the recovery and rehabilitation forced Tom to delay his start at university.
Tom was accepted into Curtin University to study a Bachelor of Commerce online. He has been working hard at his rehabilitation so he can start his studies in the mid-year intake.
“I will be still be working on the family farm while studying," Tom said. "But I am excited to take the first step in reaching my goal to become a commercial property developer."
But the loss of income during his recovery and rehabilitation from his latest surgery had significantly impacted his savings. Tom was struggling financially. He was the perfect candidate for The Salvation Army and Bendigo Bank Education and Workplace Pathways Grant. These grants are designed to help young people affected by the Black Summer Bushfires return to study or work.
With the grant, Tom was able to buy a new computer so he could undertake his online studies.
“I was so relieved and grateful when I was given the grant,” Tom said. “Being given this support helps me so much and will play a huge role in my studies.”
A $2 million contribution from the Bendigo Bank National Bushfire Appeal, matched with a further $2 million from The Salvation Army. Together they funded the Youth Education and Workplace Pathways Grants program. By March 2021, The Salvation Army and Bendigo Bank awarded over 1,300 grants to people aged between 15 to 25 years in NSW, Victoria and South Australia.
Drew Ruthven, General Manager of The Salvation Army’s Strategic Emergency and Disaster Management (SEDM) team, said his bushfire recovery assessors were humbled and inspired by the stories they heard.
“It was interesting to hear how differently the bushfires impacted among young people. Some have become stronger and shown great resilience. Others are struggling and are dreading the next summer season,” Drew said.
“Bendigo Bank understands the long-term needs of emergency response and recovery. We are proud to partner with them this on this journey. Together, we're meeting our youth at their greatest point of need. We're helping them get their lives back on track and be actively engaged in their communities once again.”
The Salvation Army and Bendigo Bank Youth Educational and Workplace Grant is now closed. People affected by the 2019-20 Black Summer Bushfires can still reach out to The Salvation Army for support online or call 1300 662 217.