I met Julie at work, when we were sub-editors at The Courier-Mail. We worked side-by-side for years and I always loved her company. It wasn’t until right towards the end of our respective stints in the salt mines that I learned she was a Pyjama Angel. That’s typical of Jules. She doesn’t shout about those things, but I was blown away by her selfless commitment to others. She’s an inspiration and she’s been kind enough to put together some words on her experience as a Pyjama Angel. It made me a bit teary, so perhaps grab a tissue and read on…
My Life as a Pyjama Angel
By Julie Thomson
I became one five years ago. A journalist all my working life, avid reader and witness to what wonderful worlds books take you to, I felt drawn to give something back for the shiny bright life I was privileged to lead and the opportunities my children enjoy.
I am still uncomfortable with “Angel’’ and feel unworthy of the title. It’s me who gains most from going to the foster home of the children I read to each week. It is my privilege to see up close the love, energy and patience foster parents show these children and I silently thank God for them when I speculate on how these youngsters’ lives might play out without them.
I began with not one, but three foster children within the one family to read to each week. Siblings aged 10, 9 and 7, they greeted me with a wary but friendly hello. I had selected an array of titles of books from the considerable library resources the Foundation housed at their office and from a chat with the foster mother beforehand, learned something about each child’s interests and personality.
I recall we spent the first visit circling each other. They were mildly interested in the books, but reserved and watchful. I came to discover these children in care have frequent visitors from the Family Services Dept, various Government and support agencies, officials who all question them , observe them and report on them. Many of them have had numerous foster home placements.
So I was viewed as another adult who’d drop in and then out of their life, probably wanted something from them. Such children are also used to being “let down’’ by adults, such as their parents, who promise to visit, phone, return , remember their birthday, Christmas and often disappoint them. They waved me goodbye that day and probably expected it would be the last they’d see of me.
So on my second visit a week later, I was greeted with surprise and delight.
“You came back!’’ they exclaimed excitedly. “ You came again- like last week!’’
I swallowed a lump in my throat before I could say: “Of course I did. I said I would, didn’t I?’’
A trust was settling between us and we worked out a reading order which would rotate each week.
Interestingly, although the little 10-year-old girl was a competent reader, she preferred the picture books I brought for the seven-year-old whose reading level was several years below that. She loved leaning into me as we read the text and discussed the pictures. It occurred to me that though I had done this hundreds of times with my children, this young child had probably never shared a picture book with a loving adult. It didn’t pay to think about all the little emotional synapses and memories that were simply never laid down in her early years; the discussions that never occurred, the sharing and laughter, the opportunity for learning missed forever.
Over the years, the children have extended their reading and vocabulary skills considerably and we’ve shared lessons in life skills and general knowledge that have been fun and eye –opening . Their school reports show something is boosting their academic levels. I believe it ‘s the stable and happy home life their wonderful foster parents give them. But I’m happy and proud to share in some of that success and growing confidence.
Now I read to just the youngest of the three, a boy now 12 and another younger boy, a foster child who joined the family a couple of years ago. But I still chat with the older two girls, who drop in at the table and share some of their weekly news with me, while foster dad John * ( not his real name) makes me a cracking cappuccino. I have become part of this family and feel very lucky to see love and selflessness at such close quarters. If I am having a bad day and battling difficulties with a mean and cruel world, I reset my goodness compass here and bless them for it.
The two boys fight over who reads first each week and one loves my narrating longer books using all sorts of character voices. We are almost through Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets and I have run the gamut of my thespian powers, playing everyone from Valdemort to Malfoy and Snape.
Last year, 12-year-old Tom* ( not his real name) nominated me in Child Protection Week as a person who has made a difference to his life. Within the tribute he wrote was: “Julie has shown me I can be a friend to people who are older than me and they come to the house just to see me, not to see everyone in it. And she makes reading fun, so now I really enjoy it and I like reading before bed.’’
For the last two Christmases, the children have given me gold and silver angel necklace pendants – jewellery I have felt unworthy of.
“You are an angel to us,’’ their foster mother insists. “You have come every week for four years. You don’t realise how valuable that it is to insecure children.’’
Who gets the best of this Pyjama Foundation deal?
I believe it’s me.
About the Pyjama Foundation
Beyond style, fashion and the “new black’’ trending highly, you want to see true grace and beauty ? It lies with The Pyjama Foundation supporting the amazing foster parents who open their homes and their hearts to children in need.
And it’s in the DNA of the woman who had the vision and the drive to create the Foundation, Bronwyn Sheahan.
The Pyjama Foundation is a voluntary organisation that helps improve the literacy skills of children in care. There are 39,000 of them Australia wide and 92 per cent of them have a below average reading ability by the time they are seven and they struggle to catch up or keep up.
Brisbane nurse, midwife and mother of three, Bronwyn began the PF nearly 10 years ago in a cramped office on the northside. She was alarmed at the poor literacy levels of children in care. She didn’t really know how, but she had a passion to help these children whose turbulent lives and disrupted schooling was taking a toll on their education and ultimately compromising their future.
Through a classmate of her daughter’s, she learnt children in foster homes suffered an array of emotional and physical setbacks which saw them removed from their parents, and school difficulties and many changes were adding to their woes. Many of these children have never been read to by an adult – a single, simple activity that increases their literacy and academic confidence. Wonderful as the care the foster parents give to them is, most have multiple children in the household and are too busy for one-on-one reading time.
So Bronwyn recruited an army of Pyjama “Angels’’, volunteers who spend an hour to an hour-and-a-half a week reading with a child at their foster home. Sometimes the Angel reads, sometimes the child does. The program has been extended to include educational games and work on numeracy skills. There are more than 1200 Pyjama Angels operating in Queensland and New South Wales and plans are to spread it nationally.
But importantly, it is a bonding, special time for a child to feel important and valued by an adult.
To be a Pyjama Angel requires no special qualifications, just a love of children, a commitment to spending the time and a willingness to help them. The rewards are immeasurable.
Julie Thomson is a journalist, blogger http://gardengrapevine.wordpress.com/, garden columnist http://bmag.com.au/issues/271a/#/22 and freelance writer for Bmag http://bmag.com.au/issues/271a/#/14 and co director of ThomsonMedia www.thomsonmedia.net.au