News National Council axes Victorian bushfire relief van – despite winning funding
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Council axes Victorian bushfire relief van – despite winning funding

Several homes were lost and residents fled to relief centres as fires burned out of control in Victoria's southwest. Photo: AAP
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A mobile disaster relief service that links Victorian farmers to mental health support has suddenly been scrapped – just weeks after winning $70,000 funding for it to continue.

Despite its success, the operating council pulled the pin on the project in a move that has angered the rural community and left farmers feeling even more isolated.

Shortly after last year’s St Patrick’s Day bushfires tore through rural south-west Victoria, Moyne Shire Council employees Sue Rondeau and Mat Deans started operating a council van serving hot drinks and snags to farmers in need of support.

Twice a week, they would park the van on the side of a dirt road and check in on farmers and their families who had lost everything in the fires.

Sue Rondeau and volunteer Les Wise outside the van. Photo: Sue Rondeau

Fondly dubbed Van Tastic, it was fast gaining a reputation for its ability to build trust and connection in rural communities affected by disasters.

The community-led initiative proved so successful that Ms Rondeau and Mr Deans were invited to present the format at several emergency management conferences around Australia.

However, just weeks after locking in more state funding for the van to continue operating, Moyne Shire Council redirected Mr Deans to another role within the council and scrapped the van altogether.

The council has rejected the funding from the Victorian government.

Farmers who are still reeling from the aftermath of the bushfires say they feel let down by the shire.

Dairy farmer Mick Hooper, who lost his property in the bushfire, said losing the van would be tough for many farmers who are still piecing their lives back together.

“I know it can’t go on forever, but it takes a long time to recover and most people don’t realise that,” Mr Hooper told The New Daily. 

“It’s easier to slip down the road for half an hour and have a sausage and a talk to someone who is experiencing the same thing as you rather than travelling to a town hall 20 minutes away.”

Domenic Conheady, with son Ben, and Michael Hooper were among hundreds of locals who would catch up at the bushfire relief van. Photo: Sue Rondeau

Dairy farmer Jill Porter said the council’s decision to cut the van’s operation showed a “lack of true understanding about the recovery process”.

“The recovery journey is personal… it’s more than rebuilding a fence or resowing a pasture, it’s not a matter of ticking boxes and then you’re done,” Ms Porter told The New Daily.

She said a big reason behind the van’s success was due to Ms Rondeau and Mr Deans’ ethos of “care, trust and respect”.

“At times they both shouldered the community’s enormous emotional trauma, grief, anger, frustration and joy,” Ms Porter said.

Moyne Shire Council acting CEO Trev Greenberger said the move was part of an effort to “transition” the van out of the community so the farmers could learn to be self-sufficient in their recovery.

“The whole idea was it was going to be a short-term support mechanism,” Mr Greenberger told The New Daily.

“We received advice that we couldn’t let the community become reliant on that service if it wasn’t going to be forever.”

Mr Greenberger said running Van Tastic “put pressure on internal staff” and was taking away resources from other council services.

Instead, the council has provided struggling farmers with contact details for financial or mental health support services.

Ms Rondeau has since left Moyne Shire Council. She did not wish to comment.

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