EVEN within church circles, many people don’t understand what a chaplain is or what they do.
For YouthCARE chaplain Fa’atina (Tina) Ma’a, a religious upbringing did not provide much clarification on the subject.
“I used to think a chaplain was like the old guy in the TV show M*A*S*H,” she says with a laugh.
For the last six years Tina has served schools in Perth’s southern suburbs and freely admits that the role was not what she initially expected.
“I worked at two schools which were only seven minutes apart, but were worlds apart in a cultural sense. In one school, kids would worry about having their iPad confiscated by a parent, while in the other, I would have kids come to me hungry and barely clothed.
“You just never think that things could be that bad. I’d ask the student, ‘why aren’t you in school uniform?’ and they’d say ‘the police turned up at 2am, raided our house – so we moved to Auntie’s house and we don’t have our school uniform, shoes or our bags’.”
Sadly, this sort of scenario is a familiar event for many children.
“Some of these kids are exposed to some pretty heavy stuff,” she said.
“In my time, I can remember at least four different instances where students were homeless due to a drug lab in their house exploding. In one case this resulted in both parents going straight to prison.”
Meeting their physical needs of the children was the first priority. Tina would make sure the kids were fed, clothed and had someone to talk to.
“If we didn’t have what we needed to do that, I would call local churches like Life City Church for help. I would call and ask for clothes or food – or get what is needed from an op-shop.”
Even if they moved away from the area, families would try to keep their kids at the same school.
“We really care and the kids can tell,” Tina said.
“The one consistency was that the children felt safe with me and the staff at the school. When something would happen, I would be the one who got the call. If I saw one of my students on the street late at night, I would put on my high beams and make sure they got home safe.
“I’d put on my ‘Aunties hat’ and ask them if their parents knew they were out. They weren’t used to someone caring. For many, they could leave their home and do whatever they want, whenever they want from a very young age. I’d tell them that I’d better see them at school tomorrow! For me to be caring for them, it weirded them out. They’d ask me: ‘why do you care?’”
But kids don’t forget kindness.
At a recent trip to the shops, Tina bumped into a former student when she was a chaplain at a primary school. The 14-year-old was heavily pregnant.
“She didn’t know who the father was, but she remembered me,” Tina said.
“I remembered she had difficulty reading so I asked how that was going. I reminded her that it was important to improve – for the sake of her baby. She said I hadn’t changed at all. I told her: ‘I’m the same chaplain you had in school and I will always care.”
THE HARSH TRUTH
Tina was born in Wellington and has Chinese, Tongan and Samoan ancestry. Her name – Fa’atina – means ‘to cause pain’.
“I’ve always preferred to be called Tina, but my sister pointed out to me that pain is sometimes needed. She said that often I’m the only one prepared to tell the harsh truth to kids who need to hear it.”
The 38-year-old speaks from experience, and having been homeless at one stage in her youth, can really empathise with those going through tough times.
“I was homeless in Sydney for 18 months in my 20s,” Tina said.
“As a Kiwi in Australia I was not eligible for benefits and so I had to sleep in doorways, shelters, or ‘couch surfed’. My family had cut me off and I was too proud to ask them for help. I definitely see myself in some of those kids, especially the angry ones.”
Fortunately, a local church helped get Tina back on her feet. Fast-forward 9 years and Tina is happily married and loving her life as a chaplain.
Whether it is drugs, absent parents through FIFO or even family trouble over a winning Lotto ticket, Tina will always be there for her students.
“Being a chaplain is very rewarding and no two days are the same,” she said.
“There is a personal and emotional price in this job, but I love what I do.”