At the start of July, when nine towers across Flemington and North Melbourne were locked down for five days after tenants contracted COVID, the Catholic community was quick to offer support.

St Brendan’s School in Flemington delivered iPads and Chromebooks to ensure all students and their families in the towers had access to devices for online support and remote learning. The school also provided care packages for families, with school staff assisting in packing boxes of goods including food, personal items and nappies.

Now one month on, as wider Melbourne is under Stage 4 restrictions, that support shows no signs of wavering. The Catholic community continues to rally around St Brendan’s School Flemington to support the families of its students in the Flemington housing towers.

Just one week ago, a new batch of 27 boxed care packages was sent to the families in the towers.

Fr Hien Vu, parish priest of Flemington Parish, was particularly active in his support of the school community, coordinating support from the parish and translating for Vietnamese families in the towers.

And more recently, purchasing plants.

‘Father Hien came to us and said that he and Archbishop Comensoli would like to buy students indoor plants to care for,’ says Kelly Moore, the Deputy Principal at St Brendan’s Flemington.

Given the tower apartments don’t have backyards, it was a good way to bring a piece of nature indoors, she reasons.

These plants were one part of the donations St Brendan’s has received to create care packages for affected families since the start of July.

‘Donors were people from the wider school community but also people unconnected who had seen the story in the media and wanted to help,’ says Kelly.

‘Care packages included board games, cards and letters, baked treats, beauty products, rosary bracelets, and masks and hand sanitiser. Our Out of Schools Hours Program Youth Leadership Victoria also provided Woolworths shopping vouchers.’

The care packages were blessed by Fr Hien before being delivered to the St Brendan’s families in the towers. Residents attest they have been a cause for much-needed encouragement during a difficult time.

Despite the severity of the lockdowns – both the hard lockdown of the towers in July and the current city-wide Stage 4 – the staff at St Brendan’s are noting other reasons to keep spirits buoyant. In particular, the effect of support on the wider school community.

‘One consequence of the lockdown is a far more engaged school community that actively looks out for each other’s needs,’ Kelly says. ‘We began hosting virtual support meetings, which have been really helpful for the families. We have really high engagement.’

The virtual parent information and support sessions – known as Parent Café – sees around 80 parents attend each week. ‘It’s more than we expected,’ Kelly says. ‘And it’s not just our families in the towers. We’re getting people from all over our community making the time to check in.’

These sessions have become a place where parents share strategies about raising children while the city is under Stage 4 restrictions.

‘It helps parents express their thoughts and concerns during this time and is a positive place where we can celebrate our community and the skills everyone has to offer.’

And it’s not just families at the towers who are responding more actively. Families from all over the St Brendan’s community of all ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds are choosing to engage more actively with their school at this time.

‘Everybody just really wants to help; everyone wants to be in it together,’ Kelly says. ‘It’s amazing.’

And sometimes the most effective assistance is emotional as well as material. Kelly describes an online meeting where one group of parents reassured another – who were themselves tower residents – that, despite some unflattering portrayals in the media during July, they were still appreciated members of the school community.

‘Parents in our community have been very supportive of one another.’

For some parents, particularly those without family networks in Australia, the support provided by St Brendan’s during lockdown has transformed it from being simply a school to something more akin to a family.

‘At the start of the term when people were allowed to come in, one parent came in to pick up her child’s materials for home school,’ Kelly says. ‘With her mask and gloves on, she said, “I don’t have family here. You are my family.” She thanked us and she opened her arms like she just wanted to give us all a big hug.’