How an Echuca family connection helped Germany’s “koala lady” in the bushfire appeal

By Daneka Hill

AN Echuca family has turned their German relative into an unwitting European sensation.

It began when Gertje Forlong reached out to ask how she could help with the bushfire recovery.

Little did she know her relative’s suggestion would turn her into Germany’s “koala lady”.

Tammy Ritchie is one of those Echuca relatives.

“She messaged Dad and asked what she could do to help, and Gertje has a little fabric and sewing shop in Germany so I said they were asking for pouches,” Tammy said.

Gertje then made a Facebook post on January 8 informing her hometown of Mülheim that she would be collecting pouches for in-need wildlife.
“I thought I would get 100 pouches,” Gertje laughed.

Europe ended up making and sending over 4000.

“It went boom,” the 44-year-old said.

“Within three hours the post has 17,000 clicks, next day the first newspaper called to interview me, the next day a TV channel, the next day a radio station, and it just kept going.”

“We’ve received parcels of pouches from Switzerland and Spain after I was in the newspaper there - I had 50 emails a day and it was just ding-a-ling, ding-a-ling, my normal work broke down completely.”

It turned out Germany was waiting for a person like her to emerge.

“People are saying they wanted to help and donate but didn’t because they weren’t sure where it would end up,” she said.

“When I said I had family in Australia they trusted me.”

With no idea where to send the growing pile of pouches Gertje’s Echuca connections came in handy.

Tammy said the hardest part was finding the right place to send the pouches.

“We didn’t know where to send them and a lot of places weren’t getting back to my messages - it was so hard at the start,” she said.

Together they got onto Ranges Rescue in Riddells Creek.

The knitting group had already been working seamlessly to gather and distribute pouches across Victoria and was happy to take on Europe's 4000.

When asked if she expected all the pouches to be used Gertje said “absolutely”.

“For the young ones they sometimes need seven to eight pouches a day, they pee and poo inside so we make the pouches with two layers.”
One layer acts as the bag, while the other is a removable pouch that can be taken out and washed.

On February 5, after five weeks of little sleep and intense media attention, Gertje landed in Melbourne to start the last step in the whole fiasco - the delivery.

Carried between her and her friend were suitcases packed to the brim with 700 pouches made by school children.

Sent to Melbourne in a crate ahead of time were 2000 more, while the rest travelled via international post.

“Now I tell people not to sew anymore, just to donate,” Gertje said.

“If you are going to spend 40 euros on postage just donate 40 euros.”

As she travels across Victoria thousands of Europeans are virtually joining her, eager to see where their pouches have gone.

After dropping the pouches off at Ranges Rescue Gertje made a beeline for Echuca to visit her husband’s cousin and his family.

“It is strange, I am here with family he has never met,” she said.

And waiting for her in Echuca were two more boxes of pouches, sent from a Swiss nursing home.

“They just keep coming,” she said.

After spending her weekend in Echuca’s suburbs Gertje continued into East Gippsland.

“I don’t want to be a catastrophic tourist but if I can show Germany what it is like here they will believe the fire’s destruction is true and not just Photoshop,” Gertje said.

“I am hanging onto my phone constantly, taking pictures and talking to the newspaper at home.”

Gertje said she spent a lot of time thinking about why call for pouches became so massive.

Two years ago she did something extremely similar for refugees fleeing into Europe.

“I made a Facebook post that said if you have spare fabrics give them to me because I know women who are sowing for refugees.”

Three people handed in fabrics.

“The Australian fires are different and exotic, if you asked for pouches for a pig or cow they would yawn at you but for kangaroos it is so ‘wow’, ‘yes we can do that’,” she said.

Gertje said because the bushfire crisis was on the other side of the world and “not touching German people”, they felt more free to express sympathy and were driven to help.