“YOU are my sunshine, my only sunshine,” are the famous words of the song ‘You Are My Sunshine,’ which are the words used by the government general, Mrs Linda Hurley, to lighten up state-wide disaster relief centres and the words that helped light up the Gippsland Emergency Relief Fund’s (GERF) 45th birthday on May 24.

About 80 people went to the De Grandis Winery in Traralgon to celebrate 45 years of community emergency support, reliving the history of GERF and celebrating years to come of the organisation’s work. Happening to also fall on National Volunteer Week, people from around the state of various titles reflected on the help previously given to the community.

“After 45 years, GERF has provided more than $20 million in emergency financial assistance to over 6000 families and residents in Gippsland after natural disasters,” GERF president Andy Tegart said.

Between thanking current members and the last-standing founder, Peter Nixon, the secret of GERF’s succession, new challenges, and old stories of cash handouts, the night was filled with laughter, gratitude, and many fond memories for those there.

Cake: One of three of the founders for Gippsland Emergency Relief Fund (GERF), last standing founder Peter Nixon stood proud of the accomplishment that he helped start. Photograph: Katrina Brandon

During his speech, Mr Tegart said that the structured mission provided depth in support to communities, geographical targeting, local management, donor intent, the emotional message, and the speed in which the funds are distributed are some of the things that have helped GERF succeed. He also discussed the new challenges climate change brings, such as storms of combined floods and fires.

“Now, in 2024, we face new challenges. The increasing severity of bushfires, floods and storms from climate change. Such events overlap our communities, and I think back to the changing nature of those extreme events, just seeing the recent success in events that GERF has dealt with,” he said.

“We have just responded to three of those in just five months. I was just reflecting on what Ian Bye for the Wellington community pointed out when the Briagalong fires and floods occurred. This was the first time the Victorian Emergency App had provided a warning for bushfires and floods in the same area on the same day. That resulted in GERF running a combined fires and floods appeal for the first time. All of these reinforce that GERF is more than important and that we all work together to help our communities adapt and become more resilient to the challenges ahead.”

Following Mr Tegart was the premier of the new GERF video presentation sharing the efforts of GERF, whether it was a volunteer or someone who had received support from GERF, such as Dianne Kuyken, who had two lots of damage from the 2019/20 fires and 2021 storm.

Assistance: Disaster relief recipient Dianne Kuyken and president of Gippsland Emergency Relief Fund, Andy Tegart celebrated the birthday in recognition of each other. Photograph: Katrina Brandon

Later in the night, Ms Kuyken shared her story with the crowd in a question-and-answer forum with an executive committee member of GERF and MC, Barry Whitehead. Efforts for the video were shared around the room by The View From Here group and other multimedia supports who helped prepare the video for the night.

The keynote speaker for the night was Andrew Crisp, who was awarded the Australian Police Medal in the 2012 Australia Day Honours and was appointed as a member of the Order of Australia in the 2022 Queens Birthday Honours.

On top of that, Mr Crisp also spent 40 years with Victoria Police and held the role of Victoria’s Emergency Management Commissioner from 2018 to 2023.

Mr Crisp touched on the support that GERF supplies, adapting to changes along the way, his experience with the broader emergencies that covered Victoria, and getting down to the statistics and back to the people. He said that while some block out the past, we should look back to those times and how different groups can work together to better the support given, such as the 2019 Code Red.

“More and more severe events compounding emergencies, and who would have thought flood and fire at the same time, in the same location? That is the first time that has ever happened. Follow that by another storm. If we remember the other major storm in 2021, trees were down everywhere, and there was significant flooding in Traralgon. We are seeing more and more of those types of events. What does it mean for us?” said Mr Crisp.

After reciting the statistics, Mr Crisp talked about the moment he stood in the state control centre with a hundred volunteers and defence personnel. He shared the happy yet embarrassing memory of being pulled into the microphone to sing ‘You Are My Sunshine’ with Mrs Hurley.

While many in the audience feared that he would ask the group to sing it too, he talked about the memory of all the volunteers who were cheered up then and felt the support Mr Crisp hoped to send to the GERF volunteers.