AMAZINGLY Steph Lalor’s faith was not shredded by her exposure to the devastation and trauma caused by Tropical Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu last month.
Quite the opposite, the Caritas Pacific program manager said.
The monster cyclone, the strongest ever recorded to make landfall in the South Pacific, was responsible for 11 deaths and the destruction of more than 75,000 homes in Vanuatu.
“I was stunned by the devastation when I arrived in Port Vila on March 17, days after the cyclone,” she said.
“There was this sense of ‘Where do we start?’
“I had lived there as a Caritas volunteer for two years so the impact was even greater.
“Yet everywhere there was a sense that people were grateful for having survived.
“On the first Sunday after my arrival, about 300 people attended the 9am Mass which packed Paray parish’s Immaculate Heart of Mary Church.
“It was certainly a boost to my own faith, seeing how people of all denominations came together to pray in gratitude.
“I was also very moved to see their faith in action – community members, young people and all, were so concerned to help others they believed were more seriously impacted than themselves.”
Steph, talking from Caritas’ Sydney headquarters after her return from Vanuatu, said there was a sense of inevitability in her calling to this vocation.
“I remember as a young child seeing my grandmother work tirelessly as a volunteer with the Red Cross to assist disadvantaged families living around where she lived in Sydney’s outer suburbs,” she said.
“My grandmother didn’t have a lot, and spent her life caring for her adult son with schizophrenia; but she always showed such heartfelt concern for others around her.
“She was a devout Christian and I still keep her rosary beads with me as a reminder of her belief in God, and how this drove her passion for serving others.
“She was a strong woman, the only person in my family who had travelled overseas and I remember looking at all the exotic items in her home with great interest.
“I didn’t know it then, but I have no doubt that her service and her travels inspired me on my path to support others.”
Steph’s mother was another profound influence.
“Growing up, I vividly remember sitting around the dinner table as my mum spoke passionately about the events in Israel/Palestine or West Papua, or any place in the world experiencing turmoil,” she said.
“This really developed in me a sense of the injustices that existed in the world and inspired me to want to play a part in addressing them.”
Studying for a Bachelor degree in international development, Steph had an opportunity to travel with an NGO to India to visit their programs with women living in slums.
“I was 19 in the time and had never been overseas,” she said.
“However, the bravery of my grandmother and her travels, made me realise that, if I was committed to a future in aid and development, this would be the best way to get first hand exposure to the realities of poverty and injustice I had been learning about at uni.”
That trip to India was transformational, firing an enduring commitment to work alongside communities to address the causes of poverty.
Finishing her studies, Steph got an Australian volunteer’s position for two years in Vanuatu followed by seven months as a volunteer in Swaziland.
She returned to Australia in her mid-20s, keen to work closely with disadvantaged communities in her own “back yard” and spent three years working in Western Sydney.
However, the call of overseas mission fields was still strong.
Steph was appointed Caritas Pacific Program co-ordinator in April 2012.
In December that year, she had a taste of front line disaster work when Tropical Cyclone Evan tore through Samoa and Fiji, leaving death and destruction in its wake.
Considered to be the worst cyclone to hit the region in more than 20 years, the disaster caused damage in excess of $200 million in Samoa and left 14 dead.
Steph worked with Caritas Samoa to help co-ordinate the immediate response to the disaster, which included running evacuation centres and organising volunteers to provide food relief.
Last year, Steph was appointed Caritas Pacific Program manager, as she put it a “great honour”.
Not long into her latest role, she faced a massive test when, on March 13 this year, Cyclone Pam smashed through Vanuatu, unleashing gusts of up to 320km/hr and torrential rain.
On the eve of departure on March 17, Steph spoke of her great concern for the archipelago’s people, including friends in Port Vila.
Once on the ground, she threw herself into her latest mission.
“Samoa had been bad but this was many times worse,” Steph said.
“I was staying with a Port Vila parishioner who had lost part of her roof, so I got a small taste of the challenges these people were facing.”
The sheer logistics of assisting more than 166,000, or almost half Vanuatu’s population, who lost their homes amid the fury of Cyclone Pam, as well as accessing populations on Vanuatu’s 22 islands will be a challenge for years to come.
Steph, however, drew great consolation from one fact.
“What is remarkable is that, despite the utter devastation wrought by the Category Five cyclone, only 11 people lost their lives,” she said.
“For many years Caritas has been working on various cyclone-preparedness campaigns including teaching children nursery rhymes containing safety messages.
“The low death toll would seem to indicate such measures are working.”
The young woman agreed her learning curve has been steep.
“However, even on my darkest days, I always keep coming back to the many individuals and communities I have met throughout the Pacific that have benefitted from the work of Caritas,” Steph said.
“A lasting memory from Vanuatu was meeting a family in the community where I was staying who lost a large part of their house and their belongings.
“They had to shelter in their bathroom as the cyclone bore down on their home, putting their baby in the cupboard to try and keep it safe from the rain and wind.
“They mentioned that many agencies had come to talk to them and no one had ever returned with assistance.
“A few days later, we were able to distribute a tarpaulin to this family.
“The older man, when he realised I (Caritas) had come back, was so relieved for the support that he kissed me on the forehead and said ‘You came back.’
“It wasn’t the tarpaulin that made the difference – it was that he and his family weren’t forgotten.”
“Such experiences always remind me why this work is so important.”