An Indigenous cattle station manager from Queensland has been crowned Barnardos Mother of The Year.
Keelen Mailman, who along with caring for 2,300 head of cattle at Mt Tabor Station – an award winning Indigenous Land Corporation property run under licence to her Bidjara people – is foster mother to four nieces and a nephews as well as mother to her own three children.
She was nominated by her niece and foster daughter, Fay Anderson, who credits her aunt for saving her from a life of abuse, neglect and despair.
“Around 14 years ago I didn’t want to live anymore,” Fay Anderson said.
“Aunty Kay became the mother I dreamed of. The mother I always wanted. When someone asks me, ‘Who pushes you to want something so big for yourself?’ All I can say is that I want everything the world has to offer because of this beautiful woman.
“She taught me to never accept less then I deserve; I wish I could give her the world. I hope she knows how much I love her.”
Mailman, now an author and the first Aboriginal woman to manage a cattle station left school at the age of 13, she had her first child at 16.
But it was at the age of 12 when she began protecting children.
Keeleen Mailman's book The Power of Bones.
As a 12-year-old growing up in a tin shack at the Yumba, near Augathella, in western Queensland she took it upon herself to look after her brothers and sisters when her mother had a stroke at the age of 38.
She told The Australian that at one stage after a policeman threatened her with “the welfare” when she was 14 she spent an entire year in hiding, caring for her siblings and mother, getting them to school, sending them our for supplies and washing their clothes in a kero tin under the house at midnight.
She says that on the day of her 15th birthday- after a year of hiding - she walked out into the world again, no longer legally required to attend school, safe in the knowledge she had kept her family together.
It was this legacy of family, of looking after them, of putting them first, that has seen her through to this day.
"I was a kid myself, I just knew that it was the strength that I dug deep for and just stepped into the role, it was my turn to do it all, so to speak, to keep the family together," she told Fairfax Media when she won Queensland Mother of The Year.
"I stepped into the role, I didn't have time to reflect. “
It was the same mentality, of family, that saw her win the battle to get legal guardianship of her five nieces and nephews when she was 34.
Her sister had been gang-raped, had experienced brutal domestic violence and her children had suffered the brunt of her breakdown.