Connection is key to boarding success

Students at NRL Cowboys House have been urged to remain connected with their families and carry country in their hearts to ensure their success during their boarding years and into the future.

Speaking at the inaugural NAIDOC Ball, Bwgcolman, Palm Island woman, Dr Lynore Geia, Academic Lead of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health at James Cook University shared her personal experience as a boarding student in Townsville and as mother to a boarding student in Ipswich.

Dr Geia boarded for five years from 1972 at St Patrick’s College on the Strand, within eyesight of home, where she said she cried for a month looking over to Palm Island.

But despite the difficulties of being away from home, she soon settled in to the school and paid tribute to the connections and relationships she made along the way, helping her through not only boarding school, but life.

Dr Geia said students “shouldn’t feel shame” about talking about their feelings while away at boarding school, adding that making friends and connections are part of the protective factors that keep them strong as young people.

“I keep talking about connection because connection is so important to who we are as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people,” she said.

“Connection to our country, connection to each other, because relationships are the key things that get us through life.

“You can never go through life on your own; we need each other – particularly these days when we’re so challenged by the things happening around us.”

Dr Geia left boarding school seeking a career in nursing which, took her to London and England where she worked as a midwife.

Returning to Australia, Dr Geia went back to university where she undertook a Master of Public Health and Tropical Medicine degree, before completing her Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) studying how Palm Island families raise their children in a strong and resilient way.

In the year of her PhD graduation, Dr Geia sent her youngest son to boarding school in Ipswich in year 7.

Having been a boarder herself, the experience gave her a new perspective, understanding and empathy of what many of the parents visiting NRL Cowboys House for NAIDOC Day activities are going through.

“He was exposed to so many different things, and other influences around, and as a parent I had to get my head around that,” she said of her son’s time in boarding.

“I had to open my mind to the thinking of, ‘what does this mean for him, what does this mean for me, and how do I walk this path with him?’

“I had to hold him lightly in my hand and not hold on too tight because I knew if I held on too tight, he would pull, so to hold with love, that’s what I had to do.

“Love is the key for our children, love is the key that we hold as they walk out of our door to come into a different place at boarding school, (and) that love holds us and it holds them.”

Dr Geia encouraged NRL Cowboys House students to take every opportunity to connect with their homes.

“Hold onto your culture tightly, when you go home for holidays go bush, go make a spear, go do something out, so that country comes into you,” Dr Geia said.

“We’re talking about heal country, but I want to say it’s not about healing the land or looking after the land, country is you, each and every one of you.

“You carry country in your heart, you carry who you are, your family, your connection to that land.

“You are country when you walk about, when you talk to each other; healing country means keeping yourself well and healed.”

NRL Cowboys House’s inaugural NAIDOC Day and Ball provided an opportunity for families from 29 remote communities to come together for ‘Heal Country’ celebrations.

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