AS a rural chaplain in the Monaro region, Jenni Roberts is constantly amazed by how resilient country people can be.
But despite seeing some of the toughest of communities and strongest of spirits, there are times in everybody’s lives when people need to talk.
Those are the times, says the Anglican minister and Rural Fire Service (RFS) chaplain, when words are often trivial yet just “being there, giving a hug, and listening”, can help people in situations when they need some extra support.
“A big hug says it all,” Reverend Roberts said.
“Or having a cry with those people in need. It’s that unspoken support that really shows you care.”
Rev Roberts has called the Monaro region home for almost 40 years and has worked as a chaplain with the RFS for the past five years, in addition to similar services she has provided to local ambulance personnel and the Cooma prison during the past decade.
She joined a large and tight-knit network of RFS chaplains who volunteer their time and service across NSW after attending a road accident scene to support paramedics.
Rev Roberts said she saw the trauma local RFS volunteers were also confronted with – but at that time there was nobody for them to talk to.
In January this year Rev Roberts provided crucial and timely support to fire fighters and local farmers affected by the blaze which burnt out 9800 hectares east of Cooma, comforting people who had suffered or witnessed extensive losses of livestock and property.
She said chaplains help give people the opportunity to “get things off your chest”.
They are invaluable in debriefing after a traumatic incident.
“You can reassure people they can come through this time – and they do – even though it’s horrible.
“It’s a growing experience and I guess my message is as a community, we can do it together.”
As a member of her local RFS brigade and owner of a small farm in the area,
Rev Roberts had a lot in common with local volunteers and farmers affected by the bushfires.
Yet despite those shared interests, she said you can never say, “I know how you’re feeling” or “I know what you’re going through”.
“... because you really don’t know what they’re going through,” Rev Roberts said.
“Every person, every situation is different; people respond and cope in different ways and their needs are always different.”
While often her work may be a “one-off ” with people following the traumatic event they have just been through, some people may need more support over a month or more.
At times Rev Roberts will also act as a bridge between a person in trouble and a counsellor.
Although pretty busy with her usual full time job as a local Anglican priest, Rev Roberts is passionate about her chaplaincy work because she finds it is where she meets people in real need.
“I’m not a chaplain so I can convert people or spruik religion, I’m just someone to turn to,” she said.
“It’s not work where you’re worried about bums on pews.
“I may never see some of the people I’ve helped again but I know that in their time of real need, I was there for them.
“It is extending God’s presence to people, but you don’t have to say the ‘God’ word, just words of hope and comfort.
“It is providing emotional strength and support in those moments of bleakness which I see as ministry at its best.”
This article was first published in The Land's 2013 Glove Box Guide to Mental Health. To read more from the guide, click here.