She grew up in the bomb-scarred streets of Belfast, saw off cancer and dealt with divorce. But MARY JO McVEIGH has come through stronger than ever, writes Sue Williams
The first time Mary Jo McVeigh met eight-year-old Janice, the little girl was severely traumatised from years of sexual assault at the hands of her parents and kept regressing back into baby talk. Her new foster parents were desperate to help, but just didn’t know how.
Over the next two years, Mary Jo worked quietly and patiently with Janice, slowly winning her trust, helping her face up to what had happened, and gradually watching her heal. Today, she’s a happy, healthy teenager, who’s just started a university degree.
“There are so many children in terrible need today,” says Mary Jo, 52, who’s been working as a social worker and counsellor with children who’ve been physically, sexually and emotionally abused or neglected for 30 years now. “They’re lost, and their parents or carers don’t know what to do.
“Many are the victims of domestic violence, abuse, are preyed on over the internet or have parents who are affected by drugs. If these children aren’t treated now, they’ll probably go on to a life of alcohol and drug abusethemselves to escape the pain, or end up in the juvenile justice system.”
It’s tough work, but Mary Jo has never resiled from helping others. She’s been through a huge amount of trauma herself over the years, but always the desire to look after other people in
trouble has kept her going – even through the darkest, most devastating periods of her own life.
As a four year old, growing up on the tough trouble-torn streets of Northern Ireland’s Belfast, she
clearly remembers her mum tenderly washing the hands of a dirty, foul-smelling tramp on the streets, and then serving him a meal.
Later, when she was 12, her family’s pub was blown up by Protestant paramiltaries.
“I think from very young, I always had an incredible sense about humanity and I could almost feel human suffering,” she says, sitting in her Sydney centre, Cara House, she’s founded for children, adults and families recovering from the aftereffects of abuse.
“And seeing the war going on in Northern Ireland, and so much death and suffering ... I just knew I wanted to spend my life helping people; I was born to care.”
Mary Jo studied her Masters in social work at university, then did some travelling before arriving in Australia in 1990. She started out working as a sexual assault counsellor for children, running a practice from the boot of her car, with a cardboard box of toys.
Government health officials heard about her work, were impressed by her results and asked her to start training other social workers in her skills.
As she was increasingly asked to consult to other services, and more and more children in need were referred to her, she rented an office and finally set up Cara House in the city’s inner west
eight years ago, complete with her “working helper”, poodle-spaniel cross Toby.
For the mother of two boys, Cadhla (corr), 19, and Conor (corr), 17, knows just how important her work is – and not only for those troubled kids. A few years ago, she underwent a painful divorce, found herself having to sell her home to pay off debts she hadn’t known existed, and was then diagnosed with colon cancer. After surgery, she plunged into a deep, dark depression.
“I faced a total disintegration of who I thought I was,” she says now, her voice breaking with the memory. “I hurtled further and further down, to where it was very dark. But then I finally realised it wasn’t my time to go.
“I knew I had to live for my sons’ sake – nobody could hold them like I could hold them – and to carry on being of service to all those children in need. I had too much stuff left to do to die.”
Now the Wrapped In Angels therapy she pioneered, giving comfort to kids by wrapping them in a personalised, embroidered “safety” blanket, is being trialled in a pilot program by the Attorney-General’s department and she’s also launching a charity to fund more trauma counselling for kids whose families don’t qualify for a referral or can’t afford to pay a fee.
“I’ve still got a lot left to achieve,” says Mary Jo, who’s also just released her biography, Discovering Audacious Love.
“I’ve learnt from the dark time, too. No matter how hard you scream against the darkness, you can’t make the sun come up earlier in the morning.