After 10 years of working as a Plunket nurse, Sister of Mercy Jacqui Miles is more convinced than ever about caring for the wellbeing of mothers and young children.

She agrees with outspoken social worker and author Celia Lashlie that women are the backbone of the nation. “Their role is hugely important and, I think, undervalued – particularly by Government and employers.”

Jacqui sees involvement with women and children as a special part of the charism of Catherine McAuley. “Mercy care affirms mothers, grandmothers – and solo fathers – to be the best they can.

“Helping them to know how important their role is, especially in the first five years of a child’s life, is crucial to its growing to adulthood and healthy living. I think that’s not emphasized enough.”

After graduating at Auckland’s Mater Hospital in 1971, Jacqui spent seven years there before going as a theatre nurse to the Mercy hospital in Whangarei.

Another six years were spent in Samoa, guiding young women towards religious life, as well as nursing at hospitals in Apia and Leulumoega.

Then followed a spell at Monte Cecilia, supporting mothers at the emergency housing centre and caring for children in the playgroup, as well as updating skills in midwifery at National Women’s Hospital.

She also worked one day a week at the Take a Break Centre in Pitt Street, off Karangahape Road. Many of the clients were prostitutes, some involved in glue-sniffing and drugs. “I learnt a tremendous amount from them.”

In 1996, Jacqui began two years as a Remote Area Nurse at a Mercy health centre in Balgo in the Western Australian desert, about 1400km from Alice Springs. “It was one of the hardest places I’ve been to, yet incredibly rewarding.”

These days, Jacqui is part of the Plunket team based in Clendon, a suburb in Manukau with a wide diversity of cultures and social needs. Most of the families she sees are Maori and Pacific, a high proportion from Samoa.

Plunket offers a clinic service, but mostly Jacqui makes home visits, since transport poses a challenge for many of her families. Her work includes assessment of the child – weight, measurement, general development, social skills.

“We try not to take over people’s lives, but to help them recognise the skills they have. Sadly, from the chaos in their own lives, many lack the ability to parent well. Things we’d take for granted – like the time a child needs to go to bed – are missing from their own experience as children. We often have to start with the basics.”

Advocacy is a big part of Jacqui’s work – directing a family to the nearest play group or kindergarten, writing letters to Housing NZ or agencies like Family Start, getting in touch with Salvation Army about food parcels.

Cultural issues can surface, especially relating to early feeding of solids. Where WHO recommends that babies have milk for the first six months, some mothers like to start feeding solids as early as six or eight weeks, including eggs which can produce allergies.

“We recommend not giving egg white until a child is a year old. Or orange and other fruit juice; it’s sugary – which babies love! The challenge is to respect a family’s beliefs, and raise the issue in a sensitive way.”

Jacqui’s clients are always interested to learn that she is not married. “It creates a whole new conversation. They look at my grey hair and ask how many grandchildren I have; so I say that I’m a Sister of Mercy, and we go from there.”

Jacqui’s team covers a wide range of ethnic and cultural backgrounds; several are Muslim. “I value the team I work with. Each of the nurses has a great passion for their work – the wellbeing of mothers and babies.

“They’re dedicated, and most of them bring a spiritual aspect to their work. It’s not often talked about, but it’s the driving force for what they do. Our mission statement is simple - ‘whanau awhina – caring for families’.”

And Plunket’s promise is just as simple – “Together, the best start for every child.”

Reprinted from Mana Atawhai Mercy at Work 2010