Described by family, friends and colleagues as courageous, health worker Thelma Weston is this year's NAIDOC Awards Female Elder of the Year.
Known as 'Aunty Thelma', the Torres Strait woman has dedicated her life to not only her family but the whole community, working in the health sector. She has spent decades working as a nurse in community organisations and is a staunch advocate for better Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health outcomes.
At age 83, Aunty Thelma works full time at Winnunga Aboriginal Health and Community Services in Canberra where she has worked for the last decade. On top of this, she still remains the backbone of her immediate and extended family. You will find her on weekends and at night, taking her grandchildren to their sporting activities or cheering them on, on the sidelines, bringing them to appointments or babysitting or spending quality time with them.
Born on Mer (Murray) Island in the Torres Strait in 1936, Thelma grew up as one of four children. She was only three-years-old when her family had no choice but to move to mainland Australia when World War II broke out. With her father as a skilled pearl diver, the family briefly resettled on their father's lugger on the Brisbane River before moving into a residence in Breakfast Creek, QLD.
Attending the local school and having to grasp the English language was the next hurdle for young Thelma, whose parents spoke their traditional language at home.
Thelma's path to her health started early. She left school at the age of 13 and after doing some casual jobs to earn basic money, she decided on a nursing career, undertaking study at the Brisbane General Hospital.
"In those days, you had to be 17 to start your [nursing] training and the only thing I will tell you, is that I had to forge my mother’s signature because she didn’t want me to go into nursing," she admits to NITV with a laugh.
When Aunty Thelma's mother got sick, she had to leave her nursing position to look after her. Later, she got back into work via. the Army.
It was during her time nursing with the Women's Royal Australian Army Corps that she met the man she would eventually marry.
At that time, women were required to leave the public service once they were married, however that did not deter her from her desire to serve her community. Aunty Thelma began working in the community health sector, with a position at the Little Sisters of the Poor in Perth, WA.
After her four children had received their education and had 'flown the nest', Aunty Thelma decided to undertake her own studies.
"I decided that I would go and do a health workers training at an Aboriginal organisation. I got my Certificate in Healthcare and then followed that on with a Diploma in Health," she says.
Her life story isn't just one of achievement and celebration, it's also one of survival and loss.
It hasn't been an easy ride for Aunty Thelma, she has not only lost her husband, but also three of her daughters to illness.
She is a breast cancer survivor and in 2017, Aunty Thelma was one of a few Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women who came together nationally to share their stories and experiences as breast cancer survivors as part of a new video produced by Breast Cancer Network Australia (BCNA).
Her son, Richard Weston is the CEO of the Healing Foundation, a national Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisation that partners with communities to address the ongoing trauma of colonisation.
Richard describes the impact that his mother has had on his work and personal life.
“What I’ve learnt from Mum, and also Dad, has helped me really create opportunities for me to work in a space that’s really important; trying to make change for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and also to have a voice in things like policies and be critical of things that the Government might do that aren’t right."
Given the sad reality of poor life expectancy amongst Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders, the fact that 83-year-old Aunty Thelma is still defying odds and living life to the fullest in later life is not only something to be commended, but to be awarded.
The SBS network is celebrating Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and recognising the achievements of our First Peoples throughout National NAIDOC Week (7-14 July).
For programs, movies, articles and info, go here.
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