Beryl Van-Oploo talks a lot about choices.
Choices for young people. Choices for Aboriginal people.
Aunty Beryl, as she is known to just about everyone, is an Aboriginal elder, a Seniors Week ambassador, a chef, hospitality teacher and Hurstville resident for almost 40 years.
She has cooked for family, for rich people, for people on the skids, and for Prince Charles and Prince William.
And she has taught the hospitality trade to countless people in the TAFE system.
About five years ago Aunty Beryl, now almost 70, came out of retirement to put her energy into the Yaama Dhiyaan Hospitality Training Centre, helping kids down on their luck to find purpose and employment through certificate II hospitality courses.
The centre, formerly the Everleigh railway yards canteen in Darlington, also serves as a function centre and a catering service, giving the students hands-on opportunities to practise what they are learning.
‘‘My door is always open for anyone that needs a helping hand,’’ Aunty Beryl said.
‘‘That’s what you do — you try to make it better for the kids. I try to give them choices — we never really had choices.’’
Aunty Beryl, a Gamillaroi woman from Walgett, was 14 when her mother died, leaving nine children.
‘‘My aunt took in the nine of us; she already had seven of her own plus a cousin.
‘‘She raised 17 of us — everything was portioned out but we were all healthy and happy.
‘‘Being the eldest I had to help.’’
At 16, Beryl had to leave Walgett to work and ended up a nanny at Bellvue Hill.
‘‘There weren’t many choices, you were a cleaner or a nanny,’’ she said.
The nanny posting was a good one and Aunty Beryl is still friends with the family.
She looked after their young children and she learnt to cook the more famous European dishes which eventually became a real treat to her husband, Andrew Van-Oploo, a Dutch engineer.
They bought a place in South Hurstville and raised three children who have had a lot more choices than their mother did.
Aunty Beryl is proud that they have done well, that they have jobs and their own homes and that they have given her seven grandchildren.
Somewhere in between raising children, house cleaning and taking in ironing, Aunty Beryl managed to study food technology at East Sydney TAFE and get a bachelor of education degree at the University of Technology Sydney.
The drive for education seemed to have started when she worked for the Sisters of Mercy at Redfern who had her cooking at a preschool with the idea of providing nutritious meals for the locals.
‘‘I got really interested in the science of food, its nutrients and health properties and I knew how bad our health was,’’ she said.
‘‘Our mob has to focus on healthy food and exercise.’’
So began her TAFE career in hospitality which should have ended in a well deserved retirement.
But someone found some spare education and training money and Aunty Beryl set up a hospitality caravan in a park in Marrickville.
That’s where she was found by Denny Hall, a project manager from the former Redfern Waterloo Authority, who had a dream about setting up a hospitality training centre for Aboriginal people.
‘‘You are not going to change everyone but if you change one person’s journey you start a domino effect,’’ she said.