Community//

Engineering with a Conscience

What the Australian bush fires, donation fatigue and a community sewing bee taught our engineering company about tapping into our company conscience and thinking outside the box.

With the recent fire events sweeping our nation, Waterline wanted to do something to support our fellow Australians affected. But with an outpouring of charities and appeals popping up in our newsfeeds, it became overwhelming to consider where our donations would have the most impact.

Like many people, we wanted to make a direct contribution but the information-overload really stopped us in our tracks. We certainly had a dose of donation fatigue with tens of millions of dollars being pledged overnight in some instances to some of the national appeals. There was no shortage of support coming from across the globe and being completely honest, our modest donation we had to give in comparison made us feel like a small fish in a very big pond.

When I put the word out to our Brisbane engineering team about what we could do as a business to help, there were lots of ideas put forward about putting our engineering skills to good use and doing something tangible. And while that certainly made the most sense as an engineering business, what was more apparent was the personal interest of individuals shining through. The number one topic close to their hearts was their concern for the native wildlife impacted. And rightly so- those images saturating our TV screens of koalas with burnt feet and noses were heartbreaking. But it goes far deeper than the iconic koala, the umbrella species, affected right now.

The Situation

The Worldwide Fund for Animal Welfare estimate that 1.25 billion native animals have perished in the recent Australian bushfires. An alarming 8,400 koalas are thought to have perished in the NSW fires alone, with those numbers rising. Most alarmingly 80% of the range of 49 listed threatened species’ is identified within the fire extent, and at least 50 per cent of the habitat of another 65 listed species. That means that the chance of some of our most threatened species’ extinction (such as the Kangaroo Island Dunnart, the Long-footed Potoroo and the Littlejohn’s Tree Frog) in the aftermath is possible. And we are already a country with a bad reputation on the conservation stage with the highest mammalian extinction rate in the world.

In my pre-Waterline life, my role in the marketing world was to support wildlife carers across the country and raise awareness of their work. Many people don’t realise that the responsibility lay in the hands of these dedicated volunteers in our community to rehabilitate our most precious native wildlife at their own expense- both financially and emotionally. Most of these carers, already so inundated, provide around-the-clock care for our native critters. I’ve personally experienced their dedication as I’ve been invited into their homes and backyard rehabilitation centres and it’s truly eye-opening to see the toll it takes on their lives. They’re out in the heat of the day cutting the best grade gumleaf for koalas or up every couple of hours throughout the night bottle-feeding the tiniest little orphans. It’s a hard job, never-ending and completely unpaid.

I was most alarmed to learn that these inspiring Aussies do not receive financial compensation by the government for the work that they do. Every vet bill for surgeries or antibiotics, boxes of expensive milk replacer or petrol for their rescue vehicles is their own to fund and find. Anybody with a domestic dog or cat at home knows the cost of looking after the average family pet. There was no change from $300 the last time we had our routine Veterinarian visit with our beloved Staffy. And yet some of these people will care for hundreds of animals a year. I knew once the reports came through about the extensive areas affected that these volunteers would be greatly impacted and would need an incredible amount of extra support.

So I was quietly stoked when the team landed on a wildlife issue to support. And strangely enough- the team’s fundraising outlet was a bushfire relief sewing bee! Didn’t see that one coming from our mostly male-dominated team (not that men can’t sew!). The idea was that we had a few hobby sewers amongst the group who wanted to get together socially. There’d been a post online from the Animal Rescue Collective asking for creatives around the globe to sew pouches for orphaned wildlife which would be distributed to wildlife carers in the fire affected areas.

How we were going to help

So we made a poster and published the details of our event online. Initially there was only one of us that could actually sew and we started the day with two borrowed sewing machines. We thought if we could sew 20 or so pouches, that would be a real achievement. But overnight, our sewing bee poster was shared generously across social media and we had over 80 people registered for the event the next morning with another 150 still interested. Sewers and knitters from across Brisbane responded to our call. So many in fact that we closed off the event registration knowing we’d reached our capacity at the Waterline office! Then we set out to purchase $500 worth of material hoping that would cut it.

On the morning of the event we couldn’t believe the turnout with people arriving steadily through our front doors with a sewing machine in hand asking where they could set up. Complete strangers who had responded to our call without question. Even my famously shy next-door neighbour turned up on her lonesome after a brief conversation about it in our driveway just the afternoon before! Before long we had 40 volunteers occupying makeshift tables we’d set up across our engineering office cutting out patterns and working as a team for a pouch-making-production-line. It was heartening to overhear the conversations as people went to work. Their concern for the wildlife and their motivations for getting involved were unanimous.

“This was a very small thing that I could do now. For me it was a chance to help a cause close to my heart and contribute to the community. Plus I learnt how to do a French seam!”

Debbie Jeffrey, a Brisbane sewer who responded to the event on Linkedin, says she was compelled by the cause.
In the swing of things- sewers at the Waterline engineering underway with their creations!

We started at 9am and the last sewer left at 5pm. Nobody clocked off early, they were there to put in a full day of elbow grease. By the end of the day we’d counted 150 pouches of varying colours, materials and sizes. There were tiny joey pouches for the unhaired animals, hanging bags for larger kangaroos and bat wraps for orphaned flying foxes. The feeling in the room was incredibly positive and I’ll admit that I left on a bit of a high from all of that. How wonderful these people were to spend their day making a difference…quite literally! It felt strange when they left at the end of it all that I couldn’t reward them for their effort. So often in the business world, every minute of our output is billable. There’s a dollar value placed on our time and our hard-earned cash is put back into our own back pockets. And yet all these volunteers wanted was an outlet to put their hands to work and feel like they had contributed in some way towards an issue that had kept them awake at night. 

The sewing was over- the pouches were made- now what?

Over the next week, more donated pouches steadily rolled into our office. There’d be a knock on the door and another collection of beautifully crocheted bird’s nests were placed into my hands! Others who had seen our advertisement still participated from afar. I had 40 colourful bat wraps sent in from the team at Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary, and bags of pouches sewn and knitted from some vet nurses in Cairns. By the end of the week we were set with over 300 pouches. The recipients of these items would be some of the best dressed kangaroos around! And just as I was ready to distribute them, I jumped back on the original advertisement to find the address only to find that the rescue group had issued an announcement saying their collection hubs were now closed. I’ll admit that at that point I felt a bit deflated.

I went to work trying to find a carer in need. I got in touch with several grassroots organisations down south and to begin with, I got the same reply. “Thank you, but we are already so inundated with donated items.” I found it quite incredible really to think how wonderful this outcome was. In all my years working on the wildlife scene, I have come across rescue group after rescue group who continue to fly under the radar and struggle to receive support. And suddenly, under these unfortunate circumstances, support is flooding in from across the globe. There is finally a spotlight being shone on the work that they do. But eventually, I found a worthy recipient and they were genuinely surprised to hear from us.

Moah’s Ark!

Moah’s Ark Yarrawonga Wildlife Shelter is a wildlife group in regional Victoria offering 24-hour emergency rescue to around 1500 animals a year. Run by wildlife carer Loretta Saunders, the group has run for 15 years caring for native birds, possums, gliders, wombats and more. You name it- Loretta’s raised it. Like many other independent carers they do not have a charitable donation status so cannot actively pursue monetary donations. And as if she didn’t already have enough on her plate nursing the critters in her care, Loretta has been collecting donated emergency supplies and ferrying them across North Eastern Victoria supporting other wildlife groups in need throughout the fires.

We collated our items all together and sent them off to Loretta, and as I bundled them into the box I was reminded about the love put into each and every creation. I put in some photos of the ladies from our sewing bee event in my attempt to share some of that positivity from the day. I hoped it was contagious in some way! Waterline also purchased a bundle of fuel gift cards so that Loretta could deliver our items on to other rescue groups in the area. Fuel vouchers, in place of donations, are greatly appreciated by these groups as they navigate the fire zones doing food and water drops for the animals left to fend for themselves now that their habitat has disappeared. A lot of these groups have spent day after day painstakingly walking the scorched earth to find the injured survivors and marking the deceased. The scenes are reported as horrific.

Loretta’s Story

I didn’t expect to hear from Loretta, I knew how busy she was at this time. I was happy enough to know our pouches had found a home and would be put to good use. I was delighted to receive photos of her animals comfortably snuggled up inside them and a heartfelt message showing her personal appreciation.

“It meant a great deal what Waterline did. We will never forget you. We need you to know it has really helped us to support the animals. My hand has arthritis from writing out so many thank you cards to people like you!”

Loretta, upon receiving the donated goods.

Compelled by my own curiosity, I decided to give Loretta a call to hear how she’s fairing and find out more about her story. Two hours later, I hung up the phone in awe.

Loretta currently has a staggering 40 animals in her care. But she played that figure down, like most carers I know. When I asked her what types of animals, she didn’t hesitate in running me through her stock-take.

“A turtle, two threatened squirrel gliders, six eastern grey kangaroos, eight cockatoos, a blue tongue lizard, five ringtail possums, three baby wombats….”

The list went on! Including the names of three baby wombats named Hazlenut, Nutmeg and Coconut she describes as being named after nuts, “because they are all nuts”. Outside of her own extensive collection cared for by just herself and her eighteen-year-old daughter ‘Mo’, Loretta opened her doors throughout the fires as a respite centre. She told me that she has been taking in animals from other nearby shelters who had to be evacuated.

“Nutmeg is an example of what is happening out there- it’s just too hot for them. In the name of survival, Mum threw this little bub out on to the road- the bitumen temperature was a scorching 65 degrees. She had second degree burns on her feet and under her tail. Myrtleford Wildlife Shelter only had her for three days before they were evacuated for the third time.”

Coconut and Nutmeg seeking respite with Moah’s Ark.

Since the fires, Loretta has been visiting the more remote wildlife shelters in North East Victoria like Myrtleford to deliver emergency supplies such as pouches, milk formulas, cages and medical supplies. She is already up to her 19th shelter and plans to cover all the groups in the North East. She has banded together with North East Victorian Animal Aid to provide this kind of assistance. She’s driving the often 3-hour return trips to support these forgotten groups, some of which she has already visited twice. She describes having wish-lists all over the place.

“These grassroots shelters have been forgotten about by the larger animal organisations and our aim is to get them what they need. And I’ll do it again- it’s not just a once off I’m just going to keep doing it because all these wonderful people in our community are just so dedicated. We need to ensure all of these people are ready for what comes next, so that next time we aren’t behind the 8 ball.”

Many of the individuals Loretta has met along her delivery route are initially reluctant to accept her donations. She told me about her latest drop off earlier in the day to visit iconic wildlife carer, Maizy Enders. At 88-years old she’s one of Victoria’s longest serving shelters dedicating 60+ years to the animals.

“Some people, like Maizy, feel guilty accepting donations because they don’t have burnt animals, but the sad truth is that they won’t get them. The burnt ones are already gone. It’s the long-term problems now. We’re not even through the first stage. February is our hottest month. What we’re getting in now is the animals affected by starvation. The whole ecological system out there will take years to recover. That’s the harsh reality.”

An ex-Police Officer, with 30 years in the force, Loretta has certainly seen a lot in her lifetime. But admits it’s the last two decades spent on the frontline for wildlife that has been her most challenging.

“On average I spend $30,000 per year to run the shelter. That’s what all independent shelters are like. But it’s not about the money. It’s about how you fulfill your life. And it’s the faces of the kids, when I’m doing the educational talks, that make it all worthwhile. If we can teach the kids, the next generation, then we have a chance.”

When the conversation came to an end and I asked her to send through a photo for this blog, she was reluctant. Self-described as the ‘bald lady’ at the schools she visits in her community, I came to understand that this pocket-rocket wildlife warrior had her own share of health issues in recent years. She was very modest in talking about herself.

“This is how I survive. These animals have made me so happy and given me a reason to keep going.”

I looked at the photo of Loretta and Mo when I hung up the phone and I couldn’t see anything but beauty radiating from the photo. I heard it in her voice- the passion she has for the work that she does! How lucky I felt to learn about this remarkable volunteer in the community doing some truly extraordinary things.

And that there is what it’s all about!

Some of the animals currently in Moah’s Ark’s care sporting their new pouches!

What it Means for a Company Like Ours

I would really like to thank the Waterline team for coming together for this event. I realise it wasn’t your average fundraiser or contribution from a business of our nature. But I think it certainly reminded us about the kinds of things that we can do when we think outside of the box. As someone who has worked with hundreds of fundraising events over my lifetime, it was a reminder about the often-common attraction for people to come together at these times. The good humanitarian feeling is not in the money transferred across to a bank account. Their motivation is to get together with other like-minded people who share their concern and put their skill set, whatever that may be, to good use. So whether it’s female tradies rebuilding communities, engineers without borders or surfers paddling out for a cause- it’s about coming together.  

While our team have enjoyed rallying behind several national fundraising initiatives over the years, there’s often a sense of disconnection when it all comes to a close and the final transaction is made. It can often feel sterile because all that energy and enthusiasm hits a bit of a wall. It’s nice for a change to know the direct impact you’ve had like talking to Loretta. It has felt quite motivating for those members of our team involved to get down to that raw, grassroots level.

“I have to admit, I was slightly overwhelmed when Amanda said our expected numbers were so much larger than the 12 people we originally anticipated. But it was for a good cause, something that we could all get behind. So I put my anxiety to the side and put my trust in those that were coming to help. I feel so proud to be part of a company that supported our desire to do something in these trying times, to open the doors to the wider community and allow us to make a beautiful contribution. I am thankful to all the people that joined us, it was a great day to make new friends, be creative and do some good.”

Waterline’s Document Controller (aka Waterline’s only sewer), Brittany Riley, who headed up our sewing bee, described it as an inspiring day. 

So we might not have the opportunity to make a remarkable difference on this nationally significant issue, but we can open up our office doors, buy a tray of sausages, put on some tea and coffee and facilitate a wonderful group of people from our community to collaborate in our space.

I would encourage every other business, who may be in a similar privileged position, to think about what you can do to tap into your conscience too. You might just be the key to unlocking some widespread good will by being the missing link to another wonderful group of people out there with a particular skill. You just never know where that will lead you together. It’s those unlikely collaborators who often make the most genuine impact.

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