Working with children in the outback

Children’s services take many forms, but in some parts of Australia there are no schools or childcare services. Families living on remote, isolated farms and stations usually rely on distance education for their children’s preschool and early schooling. But what happens if a family needs child care because of work and study commitments, or illness? They might call on the Remote Family Care Service provided by Frontier Services, as this article explains.

When Janette Birch talks about working with children in the outback, you cannot help getting swept along with her enthusiasm.‘I just really love my job—there are so many good things about it,’ says Janette, who is a carer with Frontier Services Remote Family Care Service.

Carers are usually placed with families living on remote farms or stations for up to three weeks, to provide short-term child care. This allows the families to manage workload, stress, emergencies, a period of change, or simply just take a time-out.

The service is provided to families who live in remote areas across Queensland and the Barkly Tablelands in the Northern Territory. Because of their isolated location, it is impossible for these families to access mainstream early childhood services.

Janette started working with Frontier Services soon after the Frontier Services Remote Family Care Service program began in 1997. She has provided care for countless children, often returning to the same families.

‘I have met some wonderful families. When the children see you their eyes light up. It’s good to think you can have a positive impact on them,’ she says. Speaking from her experience, Janette describes the Remote Family Care Service as an extremely important service to remote communities. ‘In other places, mothers can drop their kids at child care. There are no early childhood care and education care services here. Often a remote family carer is requested so Mum can have time out to do whatever she might be doing—book work, mustering, studying, or maybe a paid hobby. It gives her time to do something for herself.’

‘It gives the children special time too,’ Janette adds. The carers provide the children with age-appropriate educational activities designed to aid their development and improve their skills. So, what are the rewards? ‘Seeing children every day reach their own milestones,’ says Janette. ‘Whether it is seeing them kick a ball or the first time [they] help you make a chocolate cake.’ ‘You know they appreciate it when they look forward to your visit or you see them in town and they link your arm.’

Being a remote carer means travelling long distances, being away from home for extended periods and living in fairly isolated places. Janette says the support of her partner and good friends make it possible. ‘People know the passion I have for these children and they help me. I have one friend who rings me every Sunday, no matter where I am.’

For Janette, the joys far outweigh the challenges. ‘Because some of those children do not know a lot of people, we are really important in their lives. We get amongst the community, whether that might mean going along to a rodeo or a draft. People see us as part of the area,’ she says. ‘I love the job, I love the lifestyle and I love just being a part of a unique community.’

FINDING HER CALLING

Just beginning her career with Frontier Services Remote Family Care Service is bubbly new recruit Tileah Gaslevich.

The 19-year-old has always wanted to work with children. Before she finished school last year, she would spend her holidays helping out at the childcare centre in Toowoomba where her mother worked. Tileah set out for her first placement at a sheep station in Cunnamulla in March.

‘I was quite nervous. My suitcase was overloaded [but] I soon worked out what I needed and what I didn’t. My suitcase lost eight kilos when I came back,’ she says. The family quickly made her feel at home. With shearing going on, there was lots of activity at the homestead. Tileah cared for two children, aged one and six, while the parents managed the hectic station schedule. ‘The children loved getting out on the property,’ says Tileah. ’They would get so excited watching their parents work.’

It didn’t take long for her to realise how much the children appreciated her presence. ‘Because my role was to provide care and activities for the children, they had someone with them full-time, rather than Mum and Dad trying to juggle work and looking after them at the same time.’

On her second placement, Tileah caught a ride with the mail truck to Wyandra. The family picked her up and drove her the extra one and a half hours to their station. With Tileah there to care for the children, aged three and one, the mother was able to spend time on her university studies. ‘We played for an hour on the trampoline with six water balloons. They absolutely loved it. I did too!’ she says.

While she was there, the family took her out on a fishing trip to a nearby creek. Tileah recalls sitting in a tree with her fishing rod in constant rain, but she loved it all the same. Tileah says there are many rewards to being a remote carer. ‘I just admire children. They are so creative and imaginative. Also, just meeting different people; and the fact that you’re not near a town. I just love it. It’s not like doing a road trip. You actually experience what it’s like to live in that area, and on the stations.’

At times, with no internet and no mobile phone coverage, Tileah felt a little homesick, but touching base with family helped her cope. Being away from the hustle and bustle of a bigger town did not bother her.

‘In all honesty, I do not feel the isolation because I appreciate the land so much,’ she says. ‘If things get a bit stressful, I can go outside, listen to my iPod and just sit there.’

Frontier Services is an agency of the Uniting Church and has provided services to people who live in isolated or remote regions of Australia for nearly 100 years. Frontier Services runs the Mutitjulu Child Care Centre, featured in Every Child Vol.16 No.2, 2010.

www.frontierservices.org

Rebecca Beisler
Frontier Services