In the aftermath of the 2013 bushfires that ripped across the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, Kathryn sprang into action, helping restore – and, in some cases, completely remodel – local gardens that had been burnt out.
“You feel pretty helpless seeing other people in pain,” says Kathryn Temple, aged 54. “If you can do something to help them out, it’s just the thing you do.”
In the aftermath of the 2013 bushfires that ripped across the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, Kathryn sprang into action, using her horticultural expertise to assist those whose properties had been damaged. Alongside students from Western Sydney TAFE, where she teaches horticulture and landscape design, Kathryn helped restore – and, in some cases, completely remodel – local gardens that had been burnt out.
“I’m involved in a church at Springwood, and our whole church took action [after the fires],” she explains. “Because I had the expertise in horticulture, I was asked if I would go out to the victims’ houses – both to the sites of those who had lost houses, and to those where the gardens had been damaged – and help them [assess] their gardens: what was able to be saved, what had to go, what was dangerous, what wasn’t dangerous with [burned] trees and that sort of thing.”
Kathryn’s initial involvement eventually became a years-long endeavour, during which time the mother of two made new friends in her local community and even inspired one of her students to become a specialist in bushfire horticulture. In 2017, she was nominated for a prestigious Women of the West award in recognition of her impact.
She says she feels incredibly lucky that her family’s own home, in the small town of Valley Heights, was spared during the fires. “We’d had a very dry period from June to October, the day that the bushfires happened there were strong nor-westerly winds" she says. "I was pretty horrible conditions."
She adds: “We knew that the wind was blowing away from us, so we felt safe enough, but we were on edge. From upstairs, you could see houses [catching fire] because of the differently coloured smoke, so we knew it was bad. And then we started hearing about people we knew losing houses. It was a pretty sad day.”
In the weeks following the bushfires, Kathryn contacted residents whose properties had been affected, to advise them about restoring their gardens and help distribute plants that a local nursery had donated. “It was quite therapeutic for them to be able to work with their gardens,” she says. In many cases, locals were unable to begin rebuilding their houses for financial or logistical reasons, she says, but gardening “gave them something positive to do in a time when they were dealing with a lot of loss”.
Then Kathryn decided to involve her TAFE students in the outreach process. She had identified several households whose gardens needed to be completely redesigned and set her students the task of drawing up plans for them. The class of about 15 visited each property to meet the owners and size up the challenge.
“The students asked them questions [and] found out what they wanted, then we did a site analysis,” she says. Next, “we got the residents in [to the TAFE] for a client presentation. The students presented their plans and plant reports, and then the residents took those bundles, went through them all and often [commissioned] a combination of different students’ work.”
Kathryn describes the process as a win-win situation: her students gained valuable real-world design experience while her neighbours received specialised advice from more than a dozen creative minds. “A couple of my students have actually helped other victims as a result,” she says. “One student has gone on and made bushfire design her speciality. She found a passion for it.”
And Kathryn has made new personal connections in the area, including a strong friendship with a widowed woman. “We designed a yard for her and then helped in the supervision of that getting built and then getting plants for her,” she says. “It’s lovely – we’re still in contact and she’s become a friend.”
Kathryn has always been community minded: before she and her husband moved to the Blue Mountains, she spent nine years working as a horticulturalist for Randwick Council in Sydney’s eastern suburbs. She leads devotion and runs the weekly Craftworks program at the Springwood Baptist Church; she also volunteers at an aged-care facility in nearby Leura.
“Helping people is part of what a lot of us do up here,” she says. “After the fires, my husband was helping out behind the scenes, too – he was one of the people sifting through ash and rubble.” She credits this, in part, to her spiritual community. “Being involved in a church, you want to help other people and show love to other people.”
Kathryn says she didn’t consider her horticultural outreach work to be anything special at the time. When she was nominated for the University of Western Sydney’s 2017 Women of the West awards in the Community category, she was taken aback. “That was recognition that I wasn’t expecting or looking for, but it was really quite an honour to be noticed in that way,” she says.
She was highly commended at the awards ceremony, receiving a $1000 grant which she has since used to undertake further studies in horticultural therapy. But she says the cash and the public recognition pale in comparison to the satisfaction that helping others gives her. “I think you get back as much as you give when you help people,” she says. “Seeing somebody happy or putting a smile on their face is a great reward. It gives you that warm, fuzzy feeling. It’s like when you help your students if they’re struggling – it makes the job worthwhile because you see how they can improve or gain confidence.”
Kathryn says her community carries vivid memories of the bushfires. “No lives were lost, which was great, and everyone was thankful for that, but [there were] memories lost, photos lost, treasures lost – and gardens that people had a lot of pride in were lost, too.”
She reckons we all have the capacity to make a difference in the lives of neighbours who are struggling. “Even if it’s just spending time with someone, just to have a conversation with them, maybe making a meal for someone that’s struggling [or] helping out in the garden. There are lots of little things that can make a big difference in someone’s life.”