Good Samaritan Sister Val Deakin is one of 582 Australians who were recognised in this year’s Queen’s Birthday honours list.
Val was awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) for service to Aboriginal communities in Western Australia and the Northern Territory.
Val told The Good Oil she was “chuffed and delighted” about the award – not for herself – but because her work with Australia’s First Peoples was valued by wider society.
“I was uneasy at receiving a medal,” she admitted. “I have been given permission by the Congregation to work in Aboriginal ministry – a ministry which I love. I am there on behalf of the Congregation. Wherever each of our sisters is working, the rest of us are with them too. So the work I do is not mine alone.”
Val also acknowledged the support of many groups and individuals, both near and far. “The good I am able to do is only made possible because of the goodness of others, like St Vinnies, Centacare, parishioners, volunteers from around Australia, religious sisters.”
Val feels she was “destined to dwell amongst the First Peoples of this land”. She was born in Melbourne in a small private hospital called ‘Mia Mia’. “This is an Aboriginal word for ‘dwelling’,” she said.
Then, during her formative years, Val’s elder brother, Hilton, had a significant influence. “The Aboriginal books he gave me for Christmas fascinated and captivated me. When he was living in Kalumburu [remote WA] and doing his doctoral thesis [in anthropology], he brought people from this Aboriginal community to stay at our family home in Melbourne. He also relayed to me terrible stories of discrimination against Aboriginal people.”
Because of these influences, Val was “drawn into the Aboriginal scene”. “I wanted to walk with them in their struggle and this passion has never lessened over the years.”
Val’s first ministry placement after finishing teachers’ college was to an orphanage and school in Crystal Brook, South Australia, where over half the children were of Aboriginal descent.
“I witnessed their displacement by white society in the land they occupied for over 60,000 years,” she said.
In the 1980s she went to Western Australia where, based in the remote community of Mount Magnet, she worked in Cue, Meekatharra, Leonora and Laverton.
“In each town there was a significant Aboriginal population and I was rubbing shoulders with them on a daily basis,” she said.
After time in Wiluna, living and working with the Mardu people, Val travelled to the Northern Territory where she “camped for 12 years” in Daly River.
Since 2005, she has been based at the Yanayi Aboriginal Catholic Centre in Geraldton as the diocese’s liaison person for Aboriginal ministry. Until recently, she was also chaplain at Greenough Regional Prison, a position she held for eight years.
For Val, it’s a privilege to live and work with Aboriginal people; she also believes there’s “so much to learn” from them.
“I love the honesty and simplicity of the Aboriginal people and the fact that each day is unpredictable. Their way of life helps me to live in the present moment as I have to daily adapt to the needs of the people,” she said.
“They have given me an insight into land which is non-existent in white society and which I think is so necessary for the survival of our planet.
“Also, they have shown me practical ways of putting other people before self.”