By Elise Van Dorssen
Culture has a different meaning for everyone, but culture means family and country for Kylee Samels. She lives by her family’s saying, “what do we do, we stick together”. Since the early ‘90s, Kylee and her family have gone to lengths to keep and reconnect families. It hasn’t been an easy task, yet success is continuing after all this time.
“My story doesn’t start with me,” says Kylee. “Your story starts from where you come from.” Kylee comes from the Bundjalung Tribe which is down in Northern New South Wales and her family name is Watego.
She hears the story of her great-grandfather taken from his island home and brought to New South Wales to work as a cotton farmer. She hears he was forced to serve in the Australia Army, to return without the respect from his nation. At the time, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were considered fauna.
Great-grandfather settled on land in Byron Bay, where he met his Aboriginal wife Lorna. They had 16 children including Hilma, Kylee’s grandmother. Hilma had 13 children, one of which was Carol Kylee’s mother. However, when Carol was 16, her parents died; leaving all 13 children with no legal guardian. The Department of Child Safety was going to split up the siblings, so Carol married a “not so very nice” person to gain custody of them.
“That was the only way welfare would let them stay together,” says Kylee. This marriage did not last, and Carol soon met her new partner Victor. They had four children together with the youngest being Kylee.
Keeping family together is important to the Watego family, so when Carol met a wheelchair-bound boy who had been placed in a home with four siblings, she knew exactly what she needed to do. She adopted all of them. The risk of separation was gone, but funnily enough that was not the reason she gave her husband.
“She struggled cooking in small pots, so that was the reason she gave my dad. She had to adopt the family of five, because she couldn’t cook in small pots,” says Kylee.
Kylee left school in Year 10, following a conversation with her deputy principal. “My deputy principal told me, you’re just like all the dumb blacks, go find yourself a job, education is not for you,” Kylee says. “These are words that stick in people’s heads, it took a long time for me not to believe that.”
At 17, Kylee fell in love and married a man 12 years her senior. He already had two children, but he was only connected with one. Kylee and her husband moved to the Sunshine Coast where she had her eldest son. Soon after that her husband reunited with his son. “It’s about bringing family back to family,” says Kylee.
When Kylee was 19, her mother started studying. “This is a dark aboriginal woman who didn’t even finish year six because there was no education for her,” says Kylee. Carol completed her studies and became a social worker. She was on many committees and was the founder of Barlou Woman’s Shelter and Burragha Childcare Centre. She was a well-respected woman and when she died in 2002, every Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander organisation in her district shut down for a day out of respect.
It was while working at the University of the Sunshine Coast Brassie when Kylee’s life took a turn. Kind motivating words encouraged Kylee to study. Following her mother’s footsteps, she graduated with a Bachelor of Human Services where she under took a placement with the Department of Child Safety.
“Coming into child safety and seeing kids spread from one end to the other broke my heart,” Kylee says. Kylee felt the need to want to help these kids.
She was given the opportunity to change things and that’s just what she did. As a child safety officer, Kylee’s caseload was 96 per cent Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander. With hard work and dedication to these families, not one of the children went on a child protection order. “I was so proud,” says Kylee. “I realised the families need support, mum and dad or maybe grandma.”
After just two weeks as a cultural practice advisor Kylee has already reunited two families. Kylee’s experience as an Indigenous Australian, the displacement of her family and connection to culture has been her driving motivation to connect lost relatives. “It’s the start of a journey of bringing culture and connection back into the service centre,” Kylee says.