Raised in rural Portugal, Rita Figueiredo moved to Melbourne at the age of 19 with her husband and son. She explains how two decades of serving AQA clients has helped her to see in new ways.
Story by Ian Baker
Rita Figueiredo began to work with AQA more than 20 years ago, at a critical time in her life. A tram had collided with her car, while she was driving. It had overturned her and pushed her 60 metres down the road.
“I always had very low self-esteem,” she reveals. “The accident was not my fault, but I blamed myself. I got out with just bruising, but mentally I was very bad. You keep going and everything is fine, but inside I wasn’t fine. And from my culture it is very hard to ask for help.”
Rita had grown up on a small farm in Portugal, and was 17 when she married. “The first time I had sex, I was pregnant,” she reports. “We had no TV, and no education of that kind.” She breaks into a hearty laugh – this was 37 years ago, and she is married with two sons and two grandchildren.
'You keep going and everything is fine, but inside I wasn't fine.'
Her husband, a cabinet-maker, was offered sponsorship to work in Melbourne, and Rita arrived with him shortly before she turned 20, with a child of 15 months, no other family or friends nearby, and not a word of English.
She found work as a clothing machinist, but was retrenched after five years. She had her second child, and for six years did cleaning and babysitting. She was not in need of money, but she liked to be independent.
Help someone else
“Some time after the crash, a social worker visited from Darebin Council,” Rita says.
“She helped me see that I was not the adventurous person I had been before, and that the accident was not my fault.
“She said, ‘I think you need to do something that helps somebody else, and that will help you feel that you are important.’ She gave me a newspaper and there was AQA, advertising for carers. She said: ‘I think this is what you need.’”
Rita was sure she would not get the job, and sure that with her informal English she would fail if she did get it. But her application landed an interview.
'You have done nothing wrong'
'Even though I had guidance from AQA, it took me a long time to feel comfortable with myself.'
“There was a lady and a man,” she recalls of her appointment in May 1999 at the former AQA office in Station Street, Fairfield. “As usual, I put myself down. I was saying I’m sorry this, and I’m sorry that.
“These two people said to me: ‘We think you will be all right. But you have done nothing wrong that you need to say sorry for, so you need to stop that.’”
Rita’s work satisfied her first client, a young man who reminded her of her brother but who had a spinal cord injury. The client and his mother helped her develop her skills, and they too told Rita to lighten up on the sorries. Rita was offered other clients.
“Even though I had guidance from AQA, it took me a while to feel comfortable with myself,” Rita remembers.
“I said to myself that the job had too many parts. I said to myself that I would be doing this only for a few months.
“A few months is now passing 20 years. I am happy with AQA. I feel welcome here.”
Clients need your smile
“This work has changed me in a lot of ways,” Rita explains, reflecting on her experience over the past two decades. “I enjoy it. I have a lot of respect for a lot of people I met through AQA.
“Before I started this job, I was probably obsessed with cleaning my house. I have realized from this job, and from meeting a lot of people, that cleaning my house is not very important.
“The way I grew up, I was probably very concerned about what other people were thinking of me. That is not so important any more.
“When I started this job, I thought: I won’t work at Christmas because I need to do things with my family. One of my clients said: ‘What about us? We have Christmas too.’
“And that changed me as well. I saw myself as I had grown up, how I had thought about the world and about people, and about this little day, Christmas. I decided that respecting others and helping others was more important, and I decided that should be every day. Since then, almost always I have worked on Christmas Day.
'I was probably very concerned about what other people were thinking of me. That is not so important any more.'
“I used to be a very grumpy person in the morning. Now I have seen over the years that other people suffer more than I do, and they need your ‘Good Morning!’ and your smile in the morning. Good morning, and give a smile. Sometimes it’s hard, but you need to do it because the other person has nothing to do with why you are moody or grumpy.
“I think one of the very important things is to resist cancelling shifts at short notice, because AQA suffers and the client as well. Except in emergencies. I think over 20 years I have had three emergencies. A person needs to get up and to have their needs met, and it’s very hard to replace you.”
Sometimes you move on
Rita works mainly with five long-term clients, and she says that in her time with AQA, no client has ever asked that she be replaced.
But there has been the rare occasion when she has concluded that she will no longer work with a client. When she reports this, she does not accuse herself.
“To be a carer, you need to have it in your heart,” she explains. “This is a very, very hard job to do if you don’t have the ability to come from your heart when you are doing it.
“You need to get up in the morning and feel comfortable to be near your client and respect that person. You’ve been invited into the privacy of your client’s house, and you need to feel comfortable with the client.
'Sometimes it has taken me a long time to decide that I cannot become comfortable with a person. If you take too long, you get emotionally hurt.'
“Sometimes it has taken me a long time to decide that I cannot become comfortable with a person. If you take too long, you get emotionally hurt. If you are not sure what is the best thing to do, there are a lot of people at AQA who can help. Communication is one of the good things in this job.
“But you need to be who you are. If you don’t feel respect from someone for the way you are, there is nothing you can do if you try your best. You need to be yourself.”