“I have had lots of good moments in my life but plenty of bad ones. The good, the bad, the ugly, all of those things make me who I am today.
Born in Sydney, Bondi baby, a little nudie running down by the water. Mum was a single mum with four kids, we were battlers, she just did the best she could with the knowledge and resources she had. We just kept moving further southwest and ended up down at Buxton in NSW in the Southern Highlands.
We had a low socio-economic background. As much as I wanted to go to Uni and I had the grades, I didn’t think I was ever able to afford it and I had that doubt whether I’d be good enough. I just turned 18 and joined the Navy. My grandfather was in the Navy. I was the oldest grandchild and I loved him to bits—he was my only male role model. I wanted to travel and I wanted to do something meaningful with my life. I couldn’t see a very bright future for myself. Initially, I signed up to be a writer, doing admin, secretarial and clerical work. There was a wait to join up as a writer. I wanted to join up as an air-technician but there was a four-year wait for that, but I was too impatient, too Donni for that. While waiting and looking for civilian work, I ran into someone at CES who said, ‘we are opening up a new branch that has never been open to females before and that is MTP marine technical propulsion, aka Stoker. We are letting females in for the very first time.’
I became the very first female engineer ever in the Royal Australian Navy. Everyone was telling me it was going to be hard, ‘you’re not going make it, you won’t deal with the discipline. There is a lot of men and you haven’t grown up with men, you grew up with 2 Mums, you’re not going to fit.’
I was like ‘don’t tell me I can’t or I won’t.’ Challenge accepted, Donni being Donni, pushed through many many years of abuse in the service being the first female. In a department where they never worked with women, didn’t want women, and lots left because they didn’t want to work with women, a lot that stayed just to give us a hard time. During my time with the Navy, I had a fall and spinal shock and no one knew if I was ever going to move or walk again. I couldn’t move from the neck down for two days. I was in a hospital bed only moving my eyes and nose and as a 19-year-old I wondered if this was my life now. I wanted to die. Then I started to get some sensation and movement back. It was painful, but I wasn’t going to be held down. Two months later, I was diagnosed with cancer and they told me you’re never going to have children. I fell pregnant with my son about a month later and he was my miracle baby. Stubborn Donni, don’t tell me I can’t have any kids, because I am going to bless this world with three of them. All up I lost seven babies and had three. I believe these things happen for a reason.
So I fell pregnant with my son and I was the first stoker to give birth to another human being. Another little tick in the box. Things people can’t do, Donni did it. I was just very stubborn and eventually, I chose my children over my career. I had been in the navy for 8 and a quarter years. It was extremely tough every day, every day was abusive but I wanted to leave on my terms and not want to be bullied or pushed out.
I am proud of having been a pioneer and being the first female stoker in the Navy. It was really tough but I hope what I went through back then was worth going through for women in there now, that they have it easier than me. I don’t know how many others would have been able to endure it, but maybe that is why I was put there in the first place. That tough stubborn pig-headed woman that wouldn’t accept what everybody else said. They had all these expectations that I would fail and I didn’t. Watch me, I am woman, hear me roar. Come near my children and I roar really hard.
I was a fierce mum, a tough hard worker, and I never could die even when I wanted to. I am here for a reason, still figuring that reason out, but I am getting there.
Twenty years after I got out of the Navy, I spoke up. It was probably one of THE hardest things I ever had to do, and I had just moved over here when I did that. I was just trying to find my feet here, my new identity. I had been running from my past my whole life. Being part of this community is helping me find my life’s reason and purpose.
Once I planted my feet here, it was time to stop running. I came over in January 2019, a year before the fires, I bought my house in August and the fires hit 4 months later. For the next couple of years it was pretty tough, but I have a brighter future now. I am integrating into the community now, started to make friends, not be such a hermit and not worry about being judged anymore. I face adversity and laugh at it. I am the person that makes all the inappropriate jokes, and everybody knows me for my hair and my laugh.
I have survived suicide attempts, had severe mental health issues that I’ve overcome, rape within the service. I believe that the strength and courage to be able to talk about them to help others is a very powerful tool. Yes, it gets emotional at times, but you aren’t human without emotion and I really care for people and animals. Everyone says to me, you are so positive sometimes. I also don’t hide it when I am not positive, what you see is what you get. I don’t filter it for anyone. I want to continue healing and growing and learning.
I have worked really hard on dark Donni, she is gone, I am just me now.
Once you are brave enough to put up your hand and say, I need help, there is always someone who is willing to listen. I am willing to listen, to anybody, I don’t judge anyone because I have judged myself long enough and had to stop doing that.”