‘The hard times taught me a lot …’ Community Profile: Aunty Noelene Lever
Noelene Lever sees everyone as family. The children she has fostered, her own children and the people she has met through the course of her life. She doesn’t treat anyone differently. She just loves them.
Her daughter Sarina Kapeli, whom she fostered 39 years ago, is a shining example of that love. Left in Noelene’s care as a two-week-old, Sarina nominated Noelene for the Barnardos Mother of the Year 2018, which Noelene was awarded on Mother’s Day. Noelene is flabbergasted at the honour, speaking with great admiration of the other mothers who were nominated along with her and whom she met at the awards ceremony in May.
Noelene grew up in Fingal on the north coast of NSW. Raised by her grandparents alongside her aunts and uncles, she remembers days on the beach behind their house picking ukerebaghs (pronounced yuguries), pipis, at low tide; and playing hopscotch, rounders, marbles and twos-and-threes on the weekends with the neighbourhood children.
In 1972 Noelene became one of two board members representing the north coast for the Aboriginal Legal Service (ALS). Her role was to keep the ALS informed of what sort of services Aboriginal people on the north coast might need.
The ALS was founded in 1970 in response to arbitrary arrests and detention carried out by the police against Aboriginal people in the 1960s and 1970s in Redfern. Noelene had become known to people like Paul Coe and Lyall Munro at the ALS through her fight to keep Fingal from being developed. In 1974 she applied for and became a secretary and later office manager at the Grafton ALS.
When her husband was killed in a car accident in 1976 she moved to Sydney initially to work interviewing women about Aboriginal deaths in custody and then to work as a field officer for the ALS in Redfern.
Before they moved, she sat her children down, then aged 17, 16, 15, 13 and 12, and said to them, “Well, I can go on the pension and we can have bread and butter, or I can work and make money, and we can have devon and tomato sauce on our bread.” Their response was, “Yes, Mum!” She wanted to make sure they understood why they were moving and ensure they wouldn’t come to resent the move.
Noelene enjoyed her time interviewing women. She said, “When I first started talking to the women, they wanted me to talk to their families to learn about their lives. Even though I was an Aboriginal person from Fingal, I didn’t really understand what it was like for Aboriginal people who lived in Redfern.”
She says that growing up in Fingal she had not realised she was different. The first time she experienced racism was when as an 11-year-old she visited the Empire Theatre in Tweed Heads with her mother. Her mother (who was fair) was told that Noelene could not sit with her in the canvas seats at the front. Noelene had to sit at the back towards the right. Her mum pointed out that Noelene was her daughter, but the usher wouldn’t budge. Noelene’s mother walked out of the cinema and took them both straight home.
Noelene said it took a couple of years for the Aboriginal people in Redfern to accept her. “I was a strange black face, just come down there.”
She paid $50 rent a week for her first home in Erskineville and within six months the first of the more than 50 official and unofficial Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal children she fostered had come to stay.
As a field officer she visited jails and children’s institutions, interviewed clients, went with psychiatrists to interview clients, and was the go-between between solicitors and clients. Noelene’s prison visits often continued after-hours and on weekends as people asked her to visit them, to spend time with them, or to bring their children to visit them.
“Some of them said, ‘Me and my missus had a blue and she won’t bring the kids out and I want to see the kids, sis, can you help?’” She pointed out that she also had children at home, and while she couldn’t make it every weekend she would certainly try. At the time it was unusual for children to visit without a relative and the visits would not have happened without the trust of the mothers.
In the 1980s, Noelene worked for a few years at the Aboriginal Children’s Service, which was set up specifically to deal with children’s issues, before returning to the ALS.
Once she left the legal service and went back on the board, she continued her prison visits as an Elder twice a week at Silverwater and Parramatta jails. She said, “I’d like to just sit with them, just to let them know there’s someone out there who cares and wants to have a yarn with them, because their parents are so far away.”
With so many children to support, at one time she was working 9-5pm with the ALS and then on weekends at the children’s hospital in Camperdown. When the hospital moved to Westmead she continued working. Initially, at Westmead, it was shift work often starting in the afternoon and ending at 11pm, and she laughs as she says there was a bit of bribery going on with her children. “So, I had to sit down with my children at home and say, ‘You older ones, I have to go to work, it’s your week to go to the seccies [second-hand shop] to buy stuff.’”
They would go to Tempe tip or St Vincent de Paul’s, the boys one month and the girls the next, and they could pick what they wanted, and Noelene would get her towels and tea towels and sometimes sheets. She said, “It did the same as any new towel and they are a lot cheaper. Brand labels are not everything. I just tried to show my children, be happy with what you got. Don’t try and live up to anyone else’s standards because that can lead you off the beaten track. You know, you end up doing things you shouldn’t be doing just to impress people.”
Before her work with the ALS Noelene did seasonal work picking beans, peas, grapes, cutting cane. Although she had finished school with business principles and bookkeeping, it was hard to get work in the Tweed area. The cleaning jobs in motels, she says, went to those who had come to the Gold Coast for the lifestyle.
She remembers picking beans while seven months pregnant with her youngest strapped to her back. At one time when her husband broke his leg she caught worms at 20 cents for half a kilo. She said that was one of the hardest jobs, leaving early morning to find worms, coming back for lunch and then continuing till dark.
Noelene has retired to Forster where she is still involved in cheering children on. She is one of the Ninja Nannies (she has a red belt) who supports children at Tae Kwan Do and she cheers from the side-lines at footy and netball matches.
She says, “I have enjoyed my life because the hard times taught me a lot – how to make it into good times – to pass on to others, to my kids.”
Noelene Lever is a friend of the author.