Growing up as one of nine children in a two-bedroom house without hot water or windows, Muriel Bamblett knows what it is like to go without.
“Times were tough but it makes you more resilient,” Muriel reflects as she recalls working every holidays as a young girl, doing tasks like picking beans to bring an income in when her family lived out at Healesville, just outside of Melbourne.
Life could be hard, but there was one thing that held Muriel's family together— the strength of their culture.
“I was very fortunate. I had a really strong Aboriginal mum and dad,” she says.
“Mum made me go to school every day even though I tried to wag many times. But she had a vision that all her kids should get an education.”
With family on both Yorta Yorta and Dja Dja Warrung nations, Muriel was fortunate that her immediate family were not removed like many others as part of the Stolen Generations in the early 1950s and 60s.
She did have aunts, uncles and many cousins, however, who were taken away.
“Being brought up on a mission exposed you to huge amounts of poverty and a lot of our relatives were removed.”
“Our family was devastated by the removal policies. We didn’t grow up with strong links with our cousins.”
Muriel says that having her family and close connection to her culture around her growing up made her resilient, saying that it was only when she was older that she saw the impact on Aboriginal people who didn’t have strong ties with family.
Muriel is now an Adjunct Professor and Chief Executive Officer of the Victorian Aboriginal Child Care Agency (VACCA), an agency that, among many other programs, holds annual Christmas parties for similar Aboriginal families who might otherwise go without.
“Christmas is often a time where you haven’t got friends or family so it’s really important for us to create opportunities for families to link with, support and to be able to link into other families that are doing it tough as well and to know that they are not alone.”
"It’s really important for us to create opportunities for families to link with ... other families that are doing it tough as well and to know that they are not alone.”
Starting as a humble barbeque at the VACCA office in Melbourne over twenty years ago, there are now five annual Christmas parties held across the state with up to 1500 Aboriginal children attending.
Many agencies such as the Department of Premier and Cabinet and the Salvation Army donate presents to vulnerable Aboriginal families, and the parties provide an opportunity for Aboriginal kids to come together and see other Aboriginal kids and also their families and relatives.
Muriel says that the parties are also a way to break down the stigma of being a kid in care, as they are able to come and play with kids from other families in the community.
It also provides an opportunity for carers to come and meet other carers and other Aboriginal families, and to link in with Aboriginal services across the state.
However, this idea of coming together for Christmas is not just a professional responsibility for Muriel, but is also based in her childhood experiences.
“When I was a child we used to have Christmas in Healesville where I was raised. The Herald Sun (newspaper) used to raise money for gifts for the community, and a very kind elderly gentleman would come bring the presents from the Herald Sun out to our community.
“We would have an annual Christmas party and I can still remember that. They were times when we would get together, we got to meet other Aboriginal families, we got to enjoy Aboriginal families outside of funerals.
“We would have an annual Christmas party and I can still remember that ... we got to meet other Aboriginal families, we got to enjoy Aboriginal families outside of funerals.”
Muriel recalls when she first started working at VACCA, that the elders would speak about the camps that were held for Aboriginal children that the organisation used to run, such as at Camp Jungai. It was through these camps, the elders said, that “lifelong friendships were made.”
As such, the tradition continues through the annual Christmas party.
Yet the parties are not just a chance to receive a present or to meet Koori Santa, but are also an opportunity “where Aboriginal children can come together and they’re safe and can participate in cultural activities.”
This might include participating in hip-hop music or an Aboriginal children’s choir, screen printing, face painting and many other arts, music and games.
“How many kids by the end of the day [who] love to have the Aboriginal flag painted on them is unbelievable, they are so proud.
“All of these things strengthen our culture and bring the true meaning of Christmas, which is about giving and receiving and being around family which is critical to Aboriginal people.”
That many Aboriginal children who are in out-of-home care are often staying with non-Aboriginal families who may not have close ties to the community or to Aboriginal services, means that the Christmas parties might be a rare occasion for such kids to have contact with Aboriginal culture and families.
“When you are surrounded by lots of Aboriginal people you can feel a sense of connectedness and belonging. I think it’s important for us as Aboriginal people to create that for others and to ensure that we don’t leave anyone behind at Christmas.
“A lot of our focus is also on the family to ensure that everybody has food and that no one goes without.”
But Christmas parties aren’t all VACCA provides. They hold annual events for children on NAIDOC Week and also for National Aboriginal and Islander Children’s Day on 4 August, as well as other children’s activities and camps across the state, that involve the whole family.
“From our point of view it doesn’t just end with child welfare. Bringing the whole community to our business means that we have a more holistic approach.”
Muriel’s upbringing and family has no doubt had a lasting impact on her life, and is a experience that informs the values she brings to her everyday work assisting Aboriginal children in the greatest need.
“We understand our history, we understand what’s happened, we understand the solution is ourselves. Children do the best when they have a strong network of support.
“Having strong family, strong aunts, strong elders, the more that a child has those values around strong culture the better an Aboriginal child will do.”
To learn more about the VACCA Christmas parties or other events and services, go to their website.
Ali MC (Alister McKeich) is a writer, photographer and legal professional who holds a Masters in Human Rights Law. His work documents global human rights issues, and he has had the privilege of working with a number of Aboriginal communities here and internationally. Follow @alimcphotos