Althea and Ben McKeown

To them, caring is personal—Althea and Ben’s story

Althea and Ben McKeown’s desire to see children remain in their communities and stay connected with their culture has cemented their roles as foster carers for over a decade now.

The couple from Horn Island are passionate about working with children and treating the kids they come across as they would with their own family.

Horn Island is a small island located in the Torres Strait where most of the residents are families who enjoy warm tropical weather for most of the year. Surrounded by reefs, the island is a haven for water-related activities such as reef walking, boating, fishing, crabbing — all of which are essential to daily life in the local community and maintaining the island’s cultural identity.

The kids from the community would always come over to play with Althea and Ben’s children, and their yard would quickly fill up for sleepovers and camp outs, so it was a natural choice for the couple to become foster carers.

“Back in the days when I first owned a boat, we had all of the kids come around, so every weekend was full on taking the kids out fishing, out to the mangroves crabbing, bringing all our catch back home and cooking it for them. It was always full on but enjoyable,” says Ben.

 “I remember having a conversation with Althea. She came home one afternoon, sat down, asked if I was interested, and we were always around kids so yeah, why not, we'll give it a go,” recalls Ben.

“Once we’d made the decision, it’s been there ever since. We’re still caring for kids.”

 “The majority of residents are families here and whenever there’s an event on the island, everybody gets together, so spiritually, it’s a good community,” says Ben.

“It’s the same on all the other islands. If one family is in need, we all go out of our way to try and help so we keep that relationship close within our community.”

Most of the children that come into Althea and Ben’s care are not from their community. They're from either one of the other islands or they're coming back to community. This is why the couple are very dedicated to enhancing the child’s own cultural identity. For Althea and Ben, it is important for them to identify who they are as a Torres Strait Islander.

“When a child comes into our care, we make them feel comfortable by introducing ourselves. If I know the child and if there's a family connection there we just let them know that I'm Auntie and Ben is Uncle or ‘sissy’ and ‘bala’ for ‘brother and sister’,” says Althea.

Then it's straight down to the beach for water activities, including showing them what can and can’t be eaten, and bringing all of the catch back home and cooking it with them.

“To see kids come back to community and their faces light up when they jump in the tinnie and go out in the boat. They are really excited to be immersed in their culture and enjoy it. Some want to come back and live up here, but it’s just a matter of having more carers,” says Althea.

“I feel empathy for children who can’t remain with their own families up here.”

“It takes the whole community to grow up a child so we look after all the children in our community. Family is the most important thing and I honestly encourage families to stay connected.”

As a consequence, she is a big advocate for foster or kinship caring and encourages Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to think about becoming carers.

“I like to encourage Aboriginal and Torres Strait families to think about becoming foster or kinship carers so all our pikinini can stay in our community and be connected with culture and their families, extended families so they don’t lose their identity,” says Althea.

“Because many of our children, they've been placed with non-Indigenous families, they lose their culture. Yes they go and participate in NAIDOC activities or festivals but to me, cultural identity, it's just not singing and dancing.

“It's immersing them with other things, walking in their own community, visiting families, doing the stuff the families are doing, fishing, hunting, gathering. Those cultural activities and traditions, those are the things that are embedded in their hearts and heads and they keep it for a lifetime.”

Ben also prefers to see kids kept in their community.

“It’s important for me because for them to identify who they are as a Torres Strait Islander, who they are and where they’re from,” says Ben.

“Our younger generation don't seem to be too interested in what we used to do back in our time, so with my family, I tend to keep that culture rolling, that tradition.”

“It's for the good of the kids. We're all here for the kids. It’s challenging but I enjoy the challenge. It does make me proud knowing that you are helping those in need. I love it,” says Ben.

“I get a sense of satisfaction out of making a difference in a child's life. It’s fun, I love it,” agrees Althea.