Claire van der Boom is a Logie Award winning actress currently residing in LA and originally from Broome, Western Australia. She recently returned to Australia to film her new series, Pulse, which airs on ABC TV from Thursday 20th July. Whilst visiting the Dampier Peninsula, she spent time meeting children and families at Save the Children programs and schools in the region. These are some of her thoughts on the visit.
When I first connected with Save The Children, I looked at a list of its work around the globe for my first foray as an ambassador – from war-ravaged African villages to refugee camps on the Syrian border. But when I saw the organisation works with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community in an area I love dearly, I knew Australia was where I would begin my journey.
Growing up in multicultural Broome, the remote Dampier Peninsula was a magical place to go fishing or catch a mud crab, and as a teen, I briefly worked in the area, 'chipping shell' on a pearl farm. As an adult, Kooljaman (Cape Leveque) at the northern tip became my favourite place in all Australia. But while it was a place of respite for me, I realised it was something different for the people living there. I wanted to go back. I wanted to listen. I wanted to learn how I could help.
There is too much injustice, too many unhelpful stereotypes, too many horrifying health and education statistics, right here in my own backyard.
In Djarindjin, 170km north of where I grew up, Save the Children runs an early learning centre and a safe house for women in the community. The program is currently managed by non-Aboriginal people, but four Aboriginal women are in various stages of training, and the aim is for both centres to be run and owned by local people. As one of the current managers puts it, "We want to work our way out of a job."
At the moment, only one in five children on the peninsula take part in early education activities, which means the majority are already behind when they start primary school. And, when you consider only one in 10 people in the region have completed high school, you begin to understand the importance of establishing a healthy relationship with education at an early age. Save the Children’s goal is to work with the community and parents to help build this understanding – to get it to take hold in an organic way that honours local traditions.
On my first day at the early learning centre, it was full of activity. Positive parenting workshops were taking place and while I was there, two men visited – one was an uncle caring for relatives, and the other was a young father who had just moved to town. There was hope that these men would come back and make use of the resources again. There was hope that more fathers would start to come here.
Hope is a powerful word and an even more powerful idea. And it was apparent, at the early childhood centre and safe house, that Save the Children is helping nurture that hope.
In the past month, the safe house has provided refuge to three women at risk of family violence. Some had children with them. One was badly beaten. The safe house provided them with shelter, care and support. While I was there, Caroline Sibosado, the matriarch of Lombardina – part of the greater community of Djarindjin – showed me around and took me for a bushwalk. I so enjoyed listening to and learning from her, and I wondered why more Australians aren't actively seeking to learn more from one of the oldest cultures on earth.
Standing on the land, I was reminded how important it is to help these communities in their fight to be empowered, and keep their deeply rich culture healthy and strong. To lose connection with them is to lose connection with our own cultural identity and heritage. And standing there with Caroline, I understood that while the past is ever present, you can feel the future coming.
The corrugated dirt roads that give access to the peninsula are due to be sealed within a few years. Tourism will come hot on its heels. Off-shore mining companies currently exploring the area will inevitably push for access. It feels crucial that communities are heard, that they play a large part in the decision-making and reap the benefits of growth.
My wonderful second day in Djarindjin was spent leading theatre sports with children from the school. I worked mostly with children with learning difficulties. Some of them had seen extreme violence, one had witnessed the murder of a parent. There were stories of sexual, mental and physical abuse. Some had physical disabilities from birth or had missed years of schooling.
I used mostly physical games – storytelling through gestures, animal work and some vocal play. These kids could be very quick to anger or boredom so flexibility was key. I had to be malleable and listen to how they liked to learn. I could see these smart and brave kids needed to work both indoors and outdoors to flourish. They needed release. Seeing these kids get something out of these exercises filled me with joy.
I was startled to learn that there was little to no access to a counsellor or any professional trauma support at the school or in the wider community. There’s apparently no funding, just as there’s currently not enough funding to add a much-needed day-care element to the early education centre. It was clear that some of these children would benefit profoundly from access to a counsellor, just as the parents would benefit from access to day-care.
I had hoped I would come to a bolder conclusion than ‘more must be done’, at least learn enough to shine a new light on the issue. But clear answers to the often-uncomfortable questions about the struggles of remote Aboriginal communities still feel out of reach. History. Pride. Understanding. The issues run so deep. How do we marry our past to our future? How do we bridge the vast spaces that separate us as Australians?
I don’t know if I’ll ever come to grips with the depth of it all. Or have the right answers. But one thing I feel I do know, one thing that is completely clear to me now, is that empowering local people to be self-sustaining is critical. What’s more, supporting the wellbeing of all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, young people and families must be a national priority.
*Header Photo: Claire Van Der Boom playing drama games with school children at Christ the King Catholic School, Djarindjin Lombadina.