Hundreds of children in schools across the South Coast benefited from a mental wellbeing and resilience program run after the Black Summer bushfires.
Now, there are calls for a similar program when children get back to school after lockdown, to help address the predicted impact of the pandemic on youth mental health.
The Journey of Hope program, facilitated by Save the Children Australia, ran in 77 schools across Australia, and used creative, age-appropriate activities to start a discussion about topics like bullying, self-esteem, building safety, fear and sadness.
Schools in the Shoalhaven, Eurobodalla, Bega Valley shires took part in the program. It aimed to help young people aged 4-to 18-years old build resilience and develop new ways to cope with worry and anxiety in uncertain times.
Primary students from Sunshine Bay Public School in Batehaven took part in the program last year, and assistant principal Rob Lenon said it helped unite the school community.
"When kids came back to school after the fires, you could see the impact immediately and we needed to put some things in place to support our kids, our families and our school community," he said.
"Our staff was so excited to see program facilitators coming to our school with such a positive attitude and such a positive influence on our kids."
We all learned it's okay to talk about things, and you don't have to be scared.Evelyn, Year 6 student
The program was delivered to small groups of around eight to 10 children by Journey of Hope facilitators.
Sunshine Bay Year 6 student Evelyn said before she completed the program, no one was talking about what they'd experienced during the bushfires and it meant many had built up feelings of anger.
"During the program we all learned that it's okay to talk about things, and you don't have to be scared to talk," she said.
"You don't have to keep all your emotions bottled up inside: it's okay to be angry and it's okay to be sad."
Another classmate, Year 6 student Rocco said he enjoyed the outdoor activities the most.
"We were always focusing on helping other people and working as a group. It was really fun," he said.
"It made me feel a lot happier, more open about talking about what had happened and people helping me with getting over it and feeling better."
Mr Lenon said after the program, teachers quickly noticed a difference in the children's behaviours.
"Our classrooms and our playgrounds were calmer, student engagement has improved and we noticed kids using the language of the program a lot more to talk about how they felt," he said.
Similarly, Ulladulla Public School assistant principal Melinda Croan said the program was hugely popular with her students.
"Journey of Hope came to our school immediately after the bushfires and worked with all of our 750 students," she said.
"The feedback we got from students was that it was their favourite time of the week. They enjoyed being able to express themselves, the activities and the understanding that their feelings were okay."
Returning to "normal" after lockdown
Save the Children Australia is keen to implement a similar program with Journey of Hope facilitators when schools return after lockdown ends, but funding is running low.
CEO Paul Ronalds called on the state and federal governments to invest in programs like Journey of Hope to benefit children's mental wellbeing.
"We are already experiencing a national children's mental health crisis of a scale not seen before in Australia," he said.
"The beauty of Journey of Hope is that it is specialised, complements existing mental health supports in schools and doesn't place an extra burden on schools when they're dealing with multiple crises.
"In fact, it gives students, teachers and even parents the space and time to process and deal with what they're going through."
"Significant funding must be set aside for children's mental health and recovery in response to these and future disasters."