“I’m not quite sure where my love of kids comes from,” says Noelene Lever, who helped raise more than 50 children – plus five of her own. “It’s just the way I was born.”
As a single mum living in Sydney during the 1970s, this Bundjalung woman from the NSW North Coast began taking in unwanted or destitute children. One girl was just two weeks old when she arrived at Noelene’s crowded Marrickville family home.
“When I took her in my arms, she was asleep,” recalls Noelene. “Then she opened her eyes, looked at me and smiled and that was it. She won me over.”
Over the next three decades, Noelene threw open her doors and her heart to Indigenous and non-Indigenous kids alike. “Kids are kids,” she says. “It didn’t matter to me what colour, language or country they were from. They just needed a little bit of love, trust and understanding.”
Helping raise an expanding family
What makes Noelene’s story even more remarkable is that when she began her fostering career, she was already raising five teenage children of her own.
Widowed aged 37 after her husband was killed in a road accident, Noelene moved to Sydney with her five kids and found a job with the Aboriginal Children’s Service in Redfern, where she worked for many years. It was not long before ‘Aunty Noelene’s’ became known as a refuge for neighbourhood kids who were not being cared for properly by their own parents.
“My kids always wanted to bring their friends home and I told them whoever walks through that door becomes family – and they are equal to you,” she says.
As her household expanded and the food bills mounted, Noelene needed more income, taking on evening work at the Sydney Children’s Hospital and shifts at a local pub.
“When I think back, I wonder how I did it,” she says. “But my main priority was to make sure the kids had food in the cupboard and clothes on their backs.”
Before leaving Tweed Heads and moving to Sydney, the young widow had supported her family by cutting sugar cane, and was never frightened of hard work. “I’d put my own aches and pains on the backburner because my No.1 priority was supporting the kids,” she says.
At the height of her fostering career, there were often 11 kids living in the Lever household. Noelene recruited her own children to help with cooking and cleaning. “As my kids grew older they’d help around the house,” she says. “I think the experience of having other kids around taught them not to judge people by the colour of their skin – people are people, aren’t they?”
Although most of Noelene’s adopted children called her mum and formed a lifelong bond with the Lever family, she never formally adopted any of these kids.
“Back in those days, if you adopted a child they were forced to sever ties with their birth parents and siblings,” she says. “I wanted them to know their parents and even took one of them to see his family in Darwin.”
Always ready to help
In 2018, Noelene was named NSW Mother of the Year by Barnardos Australia and made a Member of the Order of Australia (AM).
Now aged 81 and living in retirement in Forster, Noelene still gets emotional when she recalls the children who turned up at her door – unfed, unclothed and unloved.
“The sad thing for me was the way they [the birth parents] just brushed the kids off,” she says. “They didn’t give them any clothes or anything to bring with them.”
With a vast family of children, 30 grandchildren and five great grandchildren, Noelene admits her role as a carer is likely to continue for many years to come.
“I sleep with the phone next to my ear at night,” she says. “My kids know I’m here for them 24/7 if they need me – in the good times and the bad times.”