I’m passionate, determined and I never give up.
These are definitely traits needed to raise a family of seventeen children, adopted from all over the world, many from challenging situations.
I’ve lived in Launceston all my life and at the age of thirteen went straight to work at the Singer Sewing Machine Company. The wages were three pounds a week of which I gave two to my mother and kept one for myself.
At eighteen I married a young man called Bert and quit my job because that is what was expected of women at that time. We formed our own business as the first and only Taxi Trucks. It was a 24/7 business so very hard work. But despite Bert and I both having limited education the business really prospered.
Whilst doing this, at nineteen years of age I also had our first son, Shane. Bert and I loved being parents and I always had a huge interest in children’s welfare. We decided to adopt our second child because it felt like a great opportunity to help a child who needed a family.
Our first adoption was from within Tasmania. In those days adoption was quite easy and simply involved a short interview with the department. The adoption itself was kept secret. The baby’s biological mother was young and had given birth in a Salvation Army home for unmarried mothers in Hobart. After being notified we made our way there to collect the baby where we were hustled in a side door and told to leave quickly before the mother could see. What a terrible thing it must have been for her. In those days there was a huge stigma attached to being an unwed mother, who were expected to give their babies up – they really had no choice.
Bert and I ended up having seventeen children in all, sixteen of them adopted, most from different parts of the world. We adopted children from Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, Taiwan, Mauritius, Fiji and Vanuatu. We also tried to adopt a baby from India but were unable to so we ended up sponsoring him until adulthood in India. We were also foster parents to numerous children over the years. And if that wasn’t enough I became a child care worker too!
One of the major issues for the adopted children was health as they were often coming from terrible situations. Our Vietnamese son Heath was evacuated from Saigon after it fell in the war. Heath was an airlift baby and flew in on the “Angel of Mercy” aircraft. He had been cared for in what was called the ‘dying babies’ home, a very sad place. Children that were lost or abandoned, already suffering malnutrition would be taken to these orphanages, and disease was rife. There were not enough staff so babies rarely got held.
It took us many years of lobbying, determination and hard work to be able to adopt a child from Vietnam. In fact, Australian authorities were shocked at our request and put every obstacle possible in our way, partly I think because the remnants of the White Australia policy still hung over Australia. While pushing the authorities I also started fundraising for these orphanages, opening the Tasmanian branch of Australian Society for Intercountry Aid to Children and organising events. I also loved knitting so I made lots of dolls and outfits to send to the orphanages. In fact I still knit ‘trauma teddies’ for the Tasmanian Ambulance Service and Flying Doctors, as well as beanies and ‘angel blankets’ for the hospital.
One of the most rewarding moments of adopting children was seeing the children learning to trust, to love and to cry. I remember one of our daughters who had come from a Korean orphanage did not cry for the first few months of being with us. She’d just rock back and forth if upset, but no tears, and I learned this was how she comforted herself in the orphanage because there was not enough staff to offer comfort. When she finally cried real tears I cried tears of relief and joy too.
The most children I ever had in our house was fourteen, sometimes a foster child as well. I always tried to be strict but fair. I think organisation and delegation was the key - each child had jobs to do, and we all had to work together. All food was purchased in bulk, I would average ten loads of washing a day, and the toilet was so busy we almost needed a traffic light installed!
I am often asked whether adopting children from overseas causes them to be deprived of their culture. In my opinion culture is of little use if you are dead. It sounds blunt but it is the truth; there is no doubt some of our children would be dead if we hadn’t adopted them. We would also do whatever was possible to retain their culture as well as talk to the local school, clubs and groups to promote a greater understanding of multiculturalism.
Raising such a big family has been immeasurably rewarding; it hasn’t been easy but I wouldn’t change a thing. I’m very proud of my family, and very proud to have been the inaugural Barnardos Australia’s Mother of the Year as well as to receive the Order of Australia.
Having had a very busy household I am now alone as all my children have grown up and my husband Bert passed away. It can be lonely. I miss the noise and laughter. However, six of the kids still live in Launceston and I have good friends as well as twenty-six beautiful grandchildren, so I am very blessed. I really miss my husband Bert – my backstop, my love.
Photography by Rebecca Thomson and Lara van Raay.