For nine-year-old Fay Anderson, Keelen Mailman was her “chance.”
“I didn’t want to live on this earth anymore. I was being physically and emotionally abused by someone who was supposed to love and care for me, let down time and time again by my parents. She was my chance, my Aunty Kay. I wish I could give her the world.”
This was the introduction Fay Anderson gave her aunty, Keelen Mailman, before she was recognised as the Barnardos Mother of the Year at the national awards in Sydney on Thursday.
It was 14 years ago that Mailman opened her heart and home to Anderson and her four brothers and sisters who were desperate for a loving home, living in neglect and abuse.
Rising above her own childhood of sexual abuse and poverty, Mailman displayed the same selfless strength that saw her become the primary carer for her incapacitated mum at 12-years-old, after she’d suffered a severe stroke.
Mailman went on to successfully represent herself in court to obtain full guardianship of her nieces and nephews, offering unconditional love and support to her new “kids”, all the while looking after her three biological children and running a cattle station 700 kilometres west of Brisbane, for which she became the first Aboriginal woman to do so.
But fuss, bother and gratification is so far from Mailman’s world.
“It’s hard for me to talk about without getting emotional. I must have done something right to touch my niece’s life so much,” Mailman told The Huffington Post Australia while reflecting on her niece’s decision to nominate her.
“I’ve taken a battering in my life but if you have a big heart, you can get through anything,” Mailman told Lisa Wilkinson, who was the MC for the ceremony.
It was this unshakeable sense of kindness and hope that washed over the Museum of Contemporary Art on Thursday, which saw eight finalists from around Australia celebrated for going over and above to care for, and love children in our communities.
Now in it’s 21st year, the awards are the largest and most recognised of their kind that celebrate mothering.
Keelen with grandchildren Owen, Matilda and Leo.
“Barnardos strives to be one of the leading child protection agencies. Unfortunately we see all too clearly and all too often what happens to children who don’t receive the kind of parenting that is on display today, and the kind of parenting that we wish for all kids,” Manisha Amin, marketing director for Barnardos Australia said during the awards.
Other finalists included Dannielle Kelly, an ACT mum who refused to let leukaemia win after relocating to Sydney where her sick son, Liam underwent chemotherapy, before later being diagnosed with epilepsy.
Biological mothers made up a large portion of the finalist group but other women, who had no family ties to the children they’d saved from despair were recognised.
Marg Lohan saved a desperate young mother from taking her own life after befriending her on Facebook, later inviting the young family to live with her in Coffs Harbour.
“We believe more than anything that all children deserve opportunity, security and love. Mothering children is one of the toughest and least recognised jobs in society but of course, the most critical. The nurturing of children has everlasting impact,” Amin said.
Mailman, who was a state finalist for Australian of the Year in 2007 said all of her kids have now grown up and moved out of home, but she's still as busy as ever.
Her dedication to improving the lives of those around her continues in the form of a community project that she is working on with Indigenous health advocate Sheryl Lawton, which will see plans for a healing centre for young men and women.
“We’ve got to look out for the younger generation, there’s enough to give a little to everyone and we want to share our Bidjara culture with the rest of the world,” Mailman said.
Together with Barnardos Australia, Sportscraft collaborated with Naomi Watts to create an Australian Merino coat which was also unveiled at the ceremony. With Australian mothers in mind, $10 from each sale of the coat will go directly to Barnardos, to support their life changing initiatives, and the Mother of the Year awards.