Tonia Fitzcosta
Tue, August 20, 2013 at 8:00
Stephanie Hunt

Wayne and Jacquie Houlden tell me that Tonia Fitzcosta is the most interesting person they know on the Coffs Coast.  Her job with Mission Australia is interesting, they tell me.  But it’s her slightly wild personality that makes her stand out.  I eagerly arrange to meet Tonia at Café Aqua.


A People Investigator

Tonia Fitzcosta grabs my hand and pumps it up and down vehemently, proving far stronger than her petite frame would suggest.  She grins and says in a broad Cockney accent, “So what’s this most interesting person thing all about then?”  I can tell this is going to be an interesting interview. 

At the outset she tells me, “I came to Coffs Harbour really by mistake.” After an hour it becomes obvious that Tonia has fallen into most aspects of her life if not by mistake, then certainly without much planning.  Yet, at 44, this mother to 14-year-old Lily and team leader of the Junaa Buwa Centre for Youth Wellbeing says she is exactly where she is meant to be.

“I know I’m doing the job that I was put on this planet to do,” she tells me.  Junaa Buwa is a residential program for young people who are at risk of entering the Juvenile Justice system and whose crimes are associated with drug and alcohol abuse.  For the last two years, Tonia has been the team leader managing the 10 to 15 youth workers and guiding the case managers and councilors. 

Tonia got the job fresh out of her sociology studies at SCU, a degree she had started once her daughter went to pre-school.  “I’d always loved social sciences,” she says. “It’s a bit like being a people investigator.”

Tonia has a history as a “people investigator”.  Back in England, a twenty something Tonia spent five years working for a private eye.  Having met an ex-CID policeman at a party, she stumbled into a job doing surveillance, tracing people who had run out on their finance and serving summons.

It proved an education in people.  “I got to be really friendly with the local hoods.”  She laughs.  Venturing into the big council estates in the middle of London was scary.  “But I’ve always had a real good rapport with people on the wrong side of the law,” she explains.  “I sort of had this way of talking to Danny the Dog that made everything ok.”

Tonia brings that rapport to her role at Junaa Buwa.  Typically 70-80% of the class is made up of Aboriginal males.  “As a British white woman I am in an interesting position,” says Tonia.  She admits that she was ignorant of Aboriginal culture before joining Mission Australia, but she has discovered she loves working with these young men.  “They are very humble, fascinating people,” she says.  “I learn from them every day.”

And every day is another chance to create an opportunity.  Tonia is adamant that she is not there to change people, that all she can do is create opportunities that give people a better chance of succeeding. 

It’s the ability to turn disappointment into opportunity that brought Tonia to Australia.  “My relationship in the UK broke down,” she recalls.  “And I thought bugger this and went travelling.”  After a few months in Asia she landed in Darwin and felt that she had come home.   It was an offhand suggestion that saw Tonia boarding a bus to Coffs Harbour, which dropped her off in front of the Hoey Moey. 

“It was a rough spot back then,” Tonia recalls.  But she got a job there and a few days later signed up for a dive course.  “I walked into the Dive Centre and met my daughter’s Dad.”  Mitch proved the glue that kept Tonia in Coffs and although they are no longer together she says they remain close friends.

And, of course, there is Lily.  Her daughter keeps Tonia grounded.  “I don’t think you’d be human if this job didn’t get you upset sometimes,” she acknowledges.  “But I go home and I give my daughter a hug and thank the lord that my life is my life.”

But despite occasional upset, frustration and red tape, Tonia believes that Junaa Buwa is breaking down barriers for young people.  Because the program is voluntary, the biggest challenge can be keeping youths in the service for the first week, while they are often detoxing.   But she says, even if a young person only stays for 24 hours they will have had some medical treatment and been exposed to people from all over the world.  Even these small experiences could change the way they look at their lives.

“To me, success is not necessarily simply completing the 12-week program,” Tonia explains.   She recalls a young Aboriginal man from Tenterfield who had never been inside a supermarket, bought groceries or cooked a meal before he came to Junaa Buwa.  When the young man returned to the mission and called Tonia to say “I’m cooking that meal for all my people.”  She knew this one small program could impact whole communities.

Success stories like these keep Tonia galvanized, and she expects to stay with Mission Australia for the foreseeable future.  “I’m not a person who sets goals,” she acknowledges.  “I’ve always sort of fallen into things.”  Wherever fate takes Tonia it seems likely that she will remain forever a “people investigator” – fascinated by and drawn to people in trouble.




Article originally appeared on The Most Interesting Person I Know (
See website for complete article licensing information.