In 2008, Cameron Balcombe was a 12-year-old boy who had a special encounter with a cross and icon of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It was the year that Sydney hosted the international World Youth Day (WYD), which saw thousands of young people travel to Australia from around the globe. As part of this celebration, the WYD cross and icon had been carried by young people throughout the world, including Melbourne, en route to Sydney.

Though he was young, Cameron, now 25, remembers well the day he encountered the WYD cross and icon. Looking at the photo (below) he said, ‘I haven’t seen that photo in years and years but it’s a really special photo to me. I remember that day because of how significant it was and when I look at that photo now, I think of how far I’ve come.’

Cameron explained, ‘If you’d asked me when I was younger whether I’d be a practicing Catholic, I’d have probably said “no”. Looking at that photo now and thinking of all the challenges I’ve been up against and how far I’ve come within my life and within my Catholic faith, I get a little teary. I’m really proud of myself and how far I’ve come.’

Cameron Balcombe by Fiona Basile 2008
12-year-old Cameron encounters the World Youth Day cross and icon (2008) Photo by Fiona Basile

Today, Cameron is a proud Aboriginal Catholic man who has dedicated his life to working within and serving the broader Indigenous community. He is passionate about his Catholic faith and Indigenous culture and heritage, and in sharing with others how they can be held together in a beautiful and unique way.

‘What’s kept my Catholic faith alive is that connection to my Aboriginality,’ he said, ‘my connection to my community. The Aboriginal Catholic community is small but strong and it’s that connection to community that’s really continued that passion.’

‘For me, and my people, we’ve looked up to the stars for tens of thousands of years wondering why we are here. If you look back onto our dream time stories, for a lot of them you can attest that they’re very similar to many biblical stories. It gives me an understanding of the world. And for me, that’s why I’ve really connected to being Catholic and have connected with the story of Jesus.’

Cameron grew up in Point Cook, in the west of Melbourne with his three siblings and parents. His mother is Sherry Balcombe, manager of Aboriginal Catholic Ministry Victoria. According to Cameron, her ‘strong and inspiring’ presence has fuelled his own passion for serving the Catholic Indigenous community.

‘When I was younger, I spent a lot of time at Aboriginal Catholic Ministry in Thornbury,’ he said. ‘I essentially grew up there and was immersed in that environment, surrounded by nuns and really passionate Catholic Aboriginal people.’ Growing up in this environment sparked his passion for working within the broader Aboriginal Catholic community, including his many years of volunteering with the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Catholic Commission (NATSICC).

He also attributes his current appreciation for the Catholic faith to the opportunities afforded to him by the Opening the Doors Foundation. ‘I can’t emphasise enough how important the Foundation was for myself and for getting me through Catholic primary school and high school,’ he said. ‘The Foundation allowed us to look and dress like the other school kids, it allowed us to have the books and equipment that everyone else had.

‘I’ll always be super grateful to the Foundation for how much it’s done for me in my life and how going to a Catholic school changed my life. Going to Catholic schools really opened up so many doors.’
Cameron 1 1500px

During those formative years, Cameron also spent a lot of time attending Edmund Rice Camps in Victoria along with his twin brother, James. He said he ‘wasn’t the most well-behaved student’, however, his involvement with the camps provided the ‘enjoyment and inspiration’ he needed to get through. He attended his first of three week-long camps as a ‘little buddy’ aged 12. Together with his brother he enjoyed the surfing and bike rides to the beach.

At 16, he was too old to be a ‘little buddy’ and so he trained to become a ‘buddy’ himself in order to help others. ‘I wanted to help disadvantaged kids in the community in the same way that I’d been helped,’ he said. With 20 camps under his belt, Cameron is now a ‘Captain’ with responsibility for managing the camps.

‘This is what sparked my sense of wanting to work with the community,’ he said. ‘I saw how much these camps meant for myself and my brother. It wasn’t about counselling. It was just about getting away from everyday life and doing things that you wouldn’t normally do. It also gave my parents a rest from juggling work and four kids!’

His involvement with Edmund Rice Camps Victoria earned him two community service awards – the Ricci Marks Rising Star Award in 2015 and the Service to Community Award in 2018. ‘I didn’t do the volunteering work to get an award,’ he said, ‘but I’m grateful that I did because it’s opened up a lot of doors for me in the Aboriginal Catholic community and it helped to inspire me to keep going.’

As well as his volunteering work with Edmund Rice Camps Victoria, Cameron has been heavily involved in NATSICC, where he regularly helps to organise and lead events around the country.

‘When I left high school, I got involved in NATSICC and started going along to conferences,’ he said. ‘That was the real turning point for me in terms of connecting with my Catholic community, outside of mum’s work. Going to the conferences I was able to meet other Aboriginal Catholics who were really passionate. The work done by Sabrina [Stevens] as Youth Council Representative really inspired me to get involved, and to do my bit for Aboriginal Catholics throughout Australia.’

Cameron Balcombe
In South Africa on the Classic Wallabies Indigenous Exchange in 2018

Cameron juggles his volunteering commitments in the community with full-time work and university studies through Charles Sturt University—he’s studying a Bachelor of Health Science majoring in mental health. He is part of a state government initiative – Aboriginal Mental Health Traineeship Program – which aims to get Aboriginal people working with other Aboriginal people in the mental health sector.

‘I work in forensic mental health at a forensic hospital,’ he said. ‘To understand what it is, you need to understand the patients we have here. They’re highly complex patients. About 30% of patients are on secure treatment orders; they’re people from prison who need specialised mental health care. The other 70% of patients have been found not guilty by reason of mental impairment. They’re the most serious offenders who are too unwell at the time of their crime to be found guilty of it.’

‘As part of my traineeship – I’m only a student – I’m learning about how the hospital works and providing supervised input to the multidisciplinary teams here. I work with the multidisciplinary team – the psychiatrists, the social workers, the psychologist – to paint a better picture of who our Aboriginal patients are, their lives and where they come from.

‘And I work with the Aboriginal patients to provide culturally safe care for them, applying my own lived experience and knowledge as an Indigenous person, to help.

‘For our Aboriginal patients, to see a friendly face, someone that they know gets where they’re coming from, means a lot to them and to their families. For us, our health is a really holistic thing. Our connection to community, our connection to culture, our connection to family all play a role in our mental health. So, my job is to try to give them that cultural lens and that understanding of Aboriginal holistic health and that social and emotional wellbeing and what that means for our patients.’

Cameron has also applied his Catholic spirituality to his work by way of assisting the Spiritual Care Coordinator to run an Aboriginal Rosary Group at the hospital.

Reflecting on his life so far, Cameron credits much of his passion for working in the community and supporting Aboriginal Catholics to his mum, Sherry. ‘She’s a real fighter and really stands up for what she believes in,’ he said. ‘I’ve definitely got that from her.’

He’s also grateful for the deeply spiritual encounters and inspiration he’s received through attending World Youth Day, now as an adult. Cameron travelled to Panama in 2019 and was the only Aboriginal Catholic young person to attend WYD from Victoria, with only a handful of other Aboriginal Catholics attending from Australia. ‘I was really proud to go, to represent us,’ he said. ‘I was there waving the Aboriginal and Australian flag.

The group travelled to Panama via Mexico City where they visited the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The Shrine houses a cloak worn by St Juan Diego, which features the imprint of Our Lady of Guadalupe. While there, Cameron had an exclusive opportunity with Archbishop Peter A Comensoli and one other pilgrim to get up close to the cloak, which is housed behind a glass frame at the top of the Sanctuary.

‘It was such a magnificent, holy moment,’ he said. ‘A feeling I’ve never felt before – the Holy Spirit inside of me. We were so close to the cloak, we knelt and the Archbishop led us in prayers. Tears were streaming down his face. It was such a human, and un-human moment. It was a very vulnerable moment for all of us.

‘I just felt so lucky to be asked to go up there. I was told that I was the only Aboriginal person to get this close to the skin. It was such a special and unique, one-of-a-kind experience that people don’t get to experience and I loved it.

‘In a way, what I felt when I was at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, is that same sense of belonging I feel when I’m surrounded by other Aboriginals or when I’m up on Country. It’s a very unique feeling. It was just amazing. I was filled with joy, happiness, awe and amazement. It’s really indescribable.

‘It’s moments like this that remind me why I’m so passionate about my Catholic faith and about my identity as an Aboriginal man and how it all fits together in what I do, and how I try to live my life.’