Karen Cook, of Cabbage Tree Island, pictured with her parents Lewis and Lurline, would like to guide the new generation of the community.
Karen Cook, of Cabbage Tree Island, pictured with her parents Lewis and Lurline, would like to guide the new generation of the community. Cathy Adams

Life lived and lots more to give

BEING caned, poked with pencils and humiliated by spiteful nuns who never caned white girls was not a great start to Karen Cook's primary school life - but it may have helped strengthen her will and determination to get an education and later work to help her own people.

Ms Cook had many advantages.

With a father who was in full-time work throughout her life until his recent retirement and a mother who set about the business of raising 11 children to become active workers with a conscience who would make a contribution to their community - four are now school teachers, one a deputy principal - Karen was taught early in life to be organised, well-presented, and keep a tidy home in order to succeed.

So well-presented was she that she was the first young indigenous woman to be a contestant in the Miss Australia competition, reaching the State finals in 1983.

Her clear green eyes sparkle as she recalls the support she received from the people of Wardell towards her fundraising efforts in the contest.

"Mum had just had a baby, the last one after me, who only lived for three days," she told The Northern Star.

"Had he lived longer he would have been disabled, so I raised funds for the Spastic Centre. The people at the Royal Hotel in Wardell were fantastically supportive. I did car-washes at the BP service station and the hotel ran raffles and darts competitions to support the cause.

"This was at a time when Aborigines were still banned from the front bars of pubs."

Ms Cook's early life began in the old manager's house on Cabbage Tree Island, the youngest of the Cook kids.

She recalls going to Sunday school (or risking missing out on Sunday sweets), and spending Sunday afternoons ironing her school clothes, polishing her shoes and doing her homework.

In a household where gambling, alcohol and smoking were forbidden, Karen's life was strictly regimented, but in the school holidays the kids would roam free around the countryside, riding their bikes, going to the beach, building cubby-houses and makeshift boats to take on the river.

Black kids and white kids did not usually mix, but Karen was different.

"I got around with a lot of non-indigenous girls," she said. "I was into gymnastics and athletics, dance and drama, which gave me a lot of confidence, which seems lacking in the island kids now.

"I was in theatre groups with Bob Mazzer at TAFE and in shows like No Sugar, in Lismore, and Back Home, in Sydney.

"After I left school I did a secretarial course and courses in grooming in Lismore.

"I had to learn about how to lay a table with the right cutlery. We were a big Aboriginal family who had never been out to tea!

"My first job was with the Commonwealth Employment Service doing secretarial work. Then I joined the professional services group in the Department of Education."

Now 46, mother-of-three and foster mother of many more, Ms Cook has been living in Sydney and working in the public service, women's and childrens' refuges and with women in prisons. She's still playing touch football (she represented Penrith in 2009). This year she helped organise Lismore's Masters Games.

With a passion for helping Aboriginal people to develop their potential and a train-the-trainer course under her belt, she has written programs such as"Learning Circle", aimed at helping her people identify and pursue their Dreaming and find a career path to their dream job, based on the understanding they can do anything they set their minds to do.

She has returned home to support her father, Lewis, 78 and mother Lurline, 72, in their retirement and to help with Lewis Cook's three-days-a-week dialysis regime.

She also hopes to revitalise the Jali Land Council (JLC) which her family founded many years ago. Her priority is to get JLC support to develop the land around their cottages near Cabbage Tree Island, on land she helped to clear when 16. She has a vision of developing it into a cultural centre for Aboriginal people.

Having undertaken an Aboriginal leadership program last year, Ms Cook has developed the Burabi Dreaming business plan, which would involve holding cultural camps for kids, focusing on sharing stories of the Bundjalung people from Wardell to Byron Bay; breaking down barriers between families and communities; bringing people together and encouraging young Aboriginal people away from drink and drugs.

The program would offer education and counselling for the stolen generation and for issues of family and domestic violence, crime prevention, and self-esteem.

"We need to learn other ways," she said.

"I call it a 'new journey with peace and understanding'.

"We are all one, and we need to come together as one."

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