And eight-year-old Evelyn (not her real name) has been part of Sam’s life in Tennant Creek with husband Darrin Whatley pretty much ever since.
“Evelyn was born on my first shift at Tennant Creek Hospital,” said Sam, who migrated to Australia with her family from the Isle of Mann in 1982.
“Right from the labour, they didn’t think she’d make it. When they flew her out to Adelaide Women’s and Children’s Hospital, the midwife told me she wouldn’t becoming back.” But Evelyn did come back, and from the time she was 18 months old, she spent time in Sam and Darrin’s care.
Darrin, who is also a nurse, met Sam in Adelaide in 1999. The pair moved to Tennant Creek in 2005 on 12-month contracts.
The couple’s dedication to Evelyn has been recognised Territory-wide. Sam has won the 2014 National Carer Awards’ NT Foster and Kinship Carer Award through Life Without Barriers and the couple won a Northern Territory Foster and Kinship Carer Excellence Award in 2014.
In many respects however, Sam and Darrin like to think of themselves as just ‘normal folk’. And they emphasise that Evelyn is in so many ways ‘just a normal eight year old girl’. “She has moods like everyone,” Darrin smiles, producing a recent picture of a strikingly beautiful Evelyn at a face-painting day.
“But it’s good to see her behaving like a normal eight-year-old. She smiles, laughs and cuddles us, seeing her happy is the best.” But Evelyn has every reason not to be happy.
Born with a series of complex medical conditions and multiple intellectual and physical disabilities, Evelyn is confined to a wheelchair, unable to speak and requires 24-hour care. All of which presents more than a few challenges for Darrin and Sam.
“She is in pain,” Sam explains. “Her muscles and bones don’t grow at the same rate.”
“And she has seizures,” Darrin said. Darrin is on the board of the Foster Carers’ Association NT, which has been a big help. “They help us with support and advice, and help us to get the right thing done by organisations like Department of Children and Families,” he said.
Darrin grew up in Alice Springs and works as a jack-of-alltrades, also offering rubbish and recycling services and fixes small engines on the side.
And it is how the family survives, after Sam had to leave full-time work as a nurse in order to care for Evelyn. “We had been doing medical respite prior to that, as we’re both nurses and we became foster parents because of Evelyn,” Sam said.
Now Sam and Darrin are regularly called upon to make a 1000 km round trip to Alice Springs for a half-hour medical appointment. On top of that, they frequently provide respite care for other children, something they find difficult to get for themselves due to Evelyn’s special needs.
Luckily, government assistance covers some expenses. “There are a lot of expenses,” Sam explains. “Some of which can be met by the Department, but it doesn’t cover everything."
Our aim over coming years is to help Evelyn grow and take on new challenges, to become as independent as she can be. We can provide a safe environment for her to do that.