Aunty Thelma's warm welcome

Aunty Thelma Weston named NAIDOC female elder of the year 2019

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'GREAT HONOUR': Canberra healthcare worker and grandmother Aunty Thelma Weston has been named 2019 NAIDOC Female Elder of the Year.

'GREAT HONOUR': Canberra healthcare worker and grandmother Aunty Thelma Weston has been named 2019 NAIDOC Female Elder of the Year.

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At 83 this inspiring Canberra healthworker still works full time managing a needle exchange program.

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At 83, Canberra health worker Aunty Thelma Weston has no signs of clocking off just yet.

The grandmother, and descendant of the Meriam people of the Torres Strait, was lured out of retirement more than a decade ago ("I was bored stiff actually," she told The Senior).

Now anyone looking for Aunty Thelma - a beloved member of Canberra's Indigenous community - can head to the Winnunga Nimmityjah Aboriginal Health Centre in Narrabundah.

Here the hard-working octogenarian can be found behind the desk handing out free needle packs and offering a warm welcome and friendly face to everyone who comes in.

Five days a week, Aunty Thelma manages the needle exchange program. It's a job she "sort of fell into" and one she loves.

NOT JUST A DESK JOB: The 83-year-old works full time managing the Winnunga Nimmityjah needle exhange program. Photo: Canberra Times/Jamila Toderas

NOT JUST A DESK JOB: The 83-year-old works full time managing the Winnunga Nimmityjah needle exhange program. Photo: Canberra Times/Jamila Toderas

"I just look after people who come in. Over the years I've got to know a lot of clients and when I'm away they want to know where I am," she said, adding many of the clients are non-indigenous.

"It's very non-threatening. If you don't want to give your name you don't have to."

It is this unwavering dedication to her community that saw Aunty Thelma named NAIDOC Female Elder of the Year.

She collected the award at a packed ceremony at the National Convention Centre in Canberra.

"I was taken aback," she said of her win.

"Luckily I had my speech prepared and I thanked everyone. It was a great honour."

In the audience were her daughter Jacqui and son Richard, chief executive of The Healing Foundation, an organisation set up to help members of The Stolen Generation.

As a breast cancer survivor, Aunty Thelma has beaten the odds on Indigenous life expectancy by many years and outlived three of her daughters.

One died from asthma at age 19 and another from breast cancer in 2011, the same year her husband John Weston died.

While they were not there to see Aunty Thelma collect her award, she said of the bittersweet moment, "they would be proud" .

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Born on remote Murray Island in the Torres Strait, Aunty Thelma left at the age of four, when her family evacuated the island on her father's pearl farming boat in World War II.

They made it to Cairns, then travelled to Brisbane.

"I couldn't speak English when I came to Brisbane. I had to learn and go to elocution lessons. That's what you did back then."

She has only been back to Murray Island a few times since leaving almost 80 years ago.

Leaving school in year 7, she became a nurse at an army hospital where she met her husband John, a patient.

Despite a limited education, Aunty Thelma went on to enjoy a long career in health care in Western Australia before moving to Canberra in 2004.

It was here she was approached to help out in the needle exchange.

"I guess I'll be here until I drop dead. It keeps your mind going," she laughed.

"But I'm also thinking about going back to Murray Island to visit. My father's grave is on his land."

Aunty Thelma is on the board of the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Worker Association and regularly travels across Australia for board meetings.

She has also worked with Breast Cancer Network Australia to help other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women connect, seek support and get information about the disease.

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