Helen Brown of Yamba has recently taken out the Senior Volunteer of the Year and Overall Volunteer of the Year categories, in the North Coast Region Volunteer of the Year Awards.
Helen was acknowledged for her life-long commitment and volunteering within the local Aboriginal community as she continues to try and improve the quality of lives.
Some of the positions which Helen holds include: Board member of the Aboriginal Legal Service North Coast Region, committee member for the Wirringa Baiya Aboriginal Women’s Legal Centre, volunteer for the Justice Advocacy Service; and she attends the Police Aboriginal Consultative Committee (PACC), Aboriginal Community Consultative Committee (ACCC) with Acmena Youth Justice Centre, and Clarence Valley Community Drug Action Team.
Helen also provides individual support wherever it is needed to members of the Aboriginal community – writing resumes, providing meals, clothes, transport to medical appointments and personal family support during difficult legal procedures.
Helen told the Independent that she has been volunteering for most of her life (for around 40 years).
When asked what motivated her to volunteer and help out in the community, Helen said that this was a question that she had thought about a lot.
“I think it was probably my dysfunctional childhood,” Helen said.
“I believe that being part of the stolen generation – part of all the past legislation as an Aboriginal person.
“There were six of us and my sister and I lost three of our brothers, after they were institutionalised across NSW.
“I didn’t find them until I was in my 20s and by then we weren’t bonded.
“They had already started on a self-destruct lifestyle and I just thought, I can’t sit back anymore, I’ve got to try and support people.
“So, I just started advocating for this one and that one, mostly with social welfare needs. It started out with housing applications and job applications and resumes and stuff like that and word gets around, and so I just continued.
“I don’t see it as a huge thing, I just see it as addressing the issues that we have and trying to improve others quality of life.
“Here in the Clarence Valley we have a lot of young homeless adult Aboriginal people,” she said.
Helen said that for many of them, the reasons why they are homeless is because they don’t have an income due to the fact that they have never had a birth certificate, so she works with them to get them registered.
“It takes a bit of time to organise and is difficult if they don’t have access to the internet or have a computer or mobile phone,” Helen said.
“We have a high incarceration rate with a lot of young people, that they are now saying shouldn’t be in gaol because of FASD (Fetal Alcohol Syndrome – caused by prenatal alcohol exposure) disorders and other intellectual disabilities, that are undiagnosed.
“FASD is not just apparent in Aboriginal communities – it’s right across the board.
“Alcohol is such a big part of our society and it all depends how you manage it.
“Some people can function while others can’t and then you throw in other issues such as autism or asperges, that go undiagnosed.
“Sometimes you’re dealing with people that have literacy issues and they don’t understand, or they find questions are a bit complex and a lot of the time they can’t read them – so then you become an interpreter.
Helen said that with the high statistics of Aboriginal people across the State being referred to the Justice Advocacy Service, she went and trained to work as a volunteer with them.
“To me, there are issues there, so we need to address those issues,” Helen said.
“The training that they were offering Aboriginal people, wasn’t culturally appropriate – they couldn’t comprehend it and so we had to modify it.
“So, I advocate to help the young people and their families to understand and once they comprehend what’s going on, it’s easier for them to follow the plan.
“Sometimes the system is very complicated and complex for Aboriginal people,” she said.
Helen said that several years ago she was very much involved with the Lynette Daley case (into her death, in 2011).
“Now the perpetrators are going back to court and appealing their sentences and convictions.
“So even though we thought we had a win there, we’re back into court again in October.
“It will probably be done through video link due to COVID, so we’re working with the legal service to make sure that we’ve got a legal person there to interpret for the family and then working with that person to help break it down a bit more for them.
Helen said that here in the Clarence Valley during the 70s and 80s before the introduction of the Native Title Legislation; Aboriginal people were more accepting of one another.
“With the huge diversity now created due to Native Title and territorial stuff, it’s very difficult because if you’re seen supporting one and not supporting the other and ‘you don’t come from here’, you’re working within the community to try and expel that sort of attitude, as well,” she said.
Helen shared with the Independent a couple of stories, that have touched her personally.
“I have a friend whose grandson suicided back in January, and she needed to relocate from Townsend to Grafton.
“I was able to support and advocate for that to happen for her, because of her mental health, as she didn’t want to be in the house where her grandson suicided.
“So we got in contact with a Social Housing staff member who was so kind, considerate and understanding and we established a really good relationship and during COVID we were able to get this elderly Aboriginal woman transferred from Townsend to Grafton and put some services in place for her – so that was a really positive outcome.
“Another thing that was really positive for me of late, is that we’ve now got a group of 12 strong, Aboriginal women who are aged between 55 and 80 and we are addressing the social isolation of older Aboriginal women.
“This is really interesting because we’ve got Aboriginal women who don’t come from here that aren’t Yaegl, Bundjalung, or Gumbaynggirr, that are living in houses and are becoming non-verbal, due to social isolation.
“So we’ve put this group together and we’re all really keen and it just feels so good spiritually to have other women my age that are keen to support what I do and are very good at what they do.
“We have a lot of knowledge and experience between us and we want to become grandmother mentors.
“We’re meeting with an Out of Home Care provider so that we can work with them with the young mums and bubs as well as addressing some of the social issues and establishing relationships, so they feel confident in letting us know what they need and what’s happening, so that we can support them.
“I think that the social isolation is the biggest issue for older Aboriginal people, and I think that it’s very neglected.
“In Yamba about two years ago we had to gather up all the older Aboriginal people who weren’t registered with My Aged Care because they couldn’t access services. So, we got the assessors out and we did a day at Pippi Beach Mission and we got people registered, which was good.
“We have a meeting coming up with the Out of Home Care provider on 29 September and we’re going to do the Working with Children checks for these older women, so it’s all pretty exciting.
“Some of these women in their past working lives have been: Senior project officers, we have an Aboriginal woman who does traditional healing, chefs and keen dressmakers etc – these women have so many different skills.
“We’ve heard that there might be a new program happening for young people that are homeless and these women are quite happy to come in a couple of times a week and teach them how to cook and teach them some life skills , without all the formality.
“It’s bazaar because I’ve locked horns across all of the tribal areas here (in the valley) with a lot of the community people, to improve services – but I’m used to it.
“But people have respect because they know that I’m not doing it for me – it’s just to help whoever needs support; no matter what their age, we’ve now tapped in to that need to put these supports in place.
The Independent asked Helen what motivated her to keep doing this work within the community?
“To change the quality of life for people,” Helen said.
“When I received the text message to say that I’d been successful in taking out the Volunteer of the Year award, I felt really humbled by it; because I don’t see that what I do isn’t what people shouldn’t do, if you know what I mean,” she said.