GEGAC’s Aboriginal Family Led Decision Making Convener and Cultural Support Planner, Aunty May Pearce.
Photo: Jake Lynch/GEGAC
“You’ve got to take care of our little people. Right from a young age, I knew I wanted to be a voice for Aboriginal kids.”Aunty May Pearce
If you know where she comes from, it is no surprise that Aunty May Pearce grew up with such a passion in her blood.
She is one of four daughters of the revered and respected Uncle Jumbo and Aunty Marion Pearce, who in the 1970s, 80s and 90s provided foster care to more than 200 Aboriginal children, providing whole generations of local Boorai with a safe and stable home and helping them develop a strong sense of their Aboriginal identity.
“Growing up, there were a lot of kids coming through our doors,” May remembers. “I just thought it was normal – it was what I was used to. A child was being neglected, or it was sick and the parents couldn’t care for them, then Mum and Dad would take them in.”
Like anyone, her upbringing put a strong imprint on who she would grow up to be.
“I hate seeing any child being neglected or abused. Our kids deserve to be loved, whether they’re black, white or brindle.”
May left school at 15 (“back then, you had to get your Maths teacher and your English teacher to sign off if you wanted to leave school”), and immediately began what would be a long career in supporting and advocating for Aboriginal children and families.
Her very first job was as a child care assistant at GEGAC’s daycare, out the back of the original GEGAC headquarters at 67 Francis Street.
She recalls the names of some of the women she worked with back then, including manager Pauline King, Jenny Dukakis, Betty Solomon, Merryn Sieley, Jackie Ritchie and Raylene Harrison.
“Back then, there was a lot of mob living under the poverty line,” she remembers. “Conditions in some of these houses weren’t good, they were overcrowded. So we’d drive around in a bus and pick kids up, we’d give ‘em a bath, give ‘em a feed.”
May says that although income levels may be higher now for Aboriginal families in this area, she’s worried that many kids today are poorer in one important aspect.
“Back then, they had their grandparents. Our Elders were the keeper of our children. Today, a lot of Boorai don’t have that. We’re losing that connection between the generations.”
May, who herself fought and won a battle against leukemia in the 2000s, says illness and poor health outcomes is a big factor.
“We’ve had a lot of people dying of cancer in the last few years, chronic diseases and that,” she says. “That shocks the families. That tears families apart.”
As a result, May says the traditional caring system, in which grandparents played a central role in keeping Aboriginal children in their families, is breaking down.
That’s why the work May does now has such importance.
As the Aboriginal Family Led Decision Making Convener and Cultural Support Planner for GEGAC, May’s task is to make sure that Aboriginal kids placed in out-of-home care are in culturally safe and respectful environments, and that Aboriginal children are given every opportunity to stay with Aboriginal families.
“We know that keeping our Boorai connected to culture, connected to siblings, is the best outcome,” she says. “But a lot of our families don’t understand the system. They don’t understand the child protection jargon or understand what they have to do if they want to keep their kids in the home. My job is often to translate the jargon for them, help them navigate the system.”
May is well-placed to do that. She’s been on both sides of that system, having worked briefly for Victorian Child Protection Services.
“I can see there’s a lot of education needed on both sides,” she says. “Aboriginal families need to better understand the process, and the child protection services also need to be better educated on what Koori families need, how Koori families work.”
But, despite the challenges of the system, at the end of the day May says her faith rests with Aboriginal families and with organisations like GEGAC to empower those families.
“That’s one thing that’s different from the old days – there are so many programs now, so much help for Koori families if they need it.”
“If you’ve got empowered families, they can do the job. That’s the good news – so much of this stuff is preventable if we can only empower Aboriginal families to stay healthy and stay together.”
If you want to yarn with May about something that’s happening in your mob, drop by the GEGAC office at 95 Macleod Street, Bairnsdale (opposite the Sun Cinema) or phone the Out of Home Care team at 5150 0712.