My life as a Pyjama Angel

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

Julie Thomson, 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.

To inquire how you can become a Pyjama Angel phone 07 3256 8802

Julie Thomson is a journalist, blogger, garden columnist and freelance writer for Bmag and co director of ThomsonMedia


5 comments for “My life as a Pyjama Angel

  1. Rachel vS
    February 1, 2014 at 9:46 pm

    I also have a good friend who has been a Pyjama Angel for about 5 years now. It is something I keep considering doing (though there are so many good and important causes out there it is hard to decide where limited discretionary time should be spent). I really love reading out loud to children, it is wonderful to watch their minds opening. Maybe when my two have grown out of wanting a story read EVERY night.

  2. Gail Burns
    February 5, 2014 at 10:20 am

    What she said!! I’ve only been a PA for four months, but already I have joy in the knowledge that I am a loved part of my little girl’s life. Like Julie, I can see a difference in her Numeracy (which was behind her class). As we study clocks or subtraction by regrouping (which I’ve had to teach myself before I could teach her), or we encounter a word in a book we are reading which she isn’t sure of, many offshoot conversations happen. I am loving the chance to enrich a needy heart in a way which is second nature of most of us who’ve raised emotionally healthy children to adulthood. The blessings are all mine, I assure you.

  3. Gail White
    February 5, 2014 at 7:49 pm

    I joined the Pyjama Angel Foundation 12 months ago. I consider my little boy is my Angel, not vice versa. Initially Jack (not his real name of course) really did not want to be stuck with me for an hour after school, when he would prefer to be playing with his mates. I understood that totally! However I persisted and eventually we made progress to the point where today it is just a joy to spend an hour with Jack. He chats away, asks questions and contributes to our conversations. He is the sweetest little man and a credit to his Foster Parents. He is not a great reader at this point in time, but is very intelligent. I tend to work on crosswords, grammar and punctuation exercises etc, and he loves find a word puzzles. I feel he is learning by doing these exercises and will work towards improving his reading as time goes by. I have helped him with his homework, but am guided by him as to how we spend our hour. His Foster Parents are happy with this arrangement. I so want to instil a love of reading, and hope to succeed in this one day!

    • Ann Godfrey
      February 22, 2015 at 2:02 pm

      I’ve only been a PA for around three months and like Gail feel like the little girl I visit is the Angel. We read, do multiplication and always end up doing some form of arts and crafts to finish off. I always have the biggest smile on my face when I come away at something we’ve done – the biggest of all being for the last visit before Christmas when I got such a lovely hug from both my little angel and her foster carer. We all have busy lives but if you think you might like to do this then give it a go – I can tell you it’s amazing to build a relationship like this – as well as an education AND a challenge to make the visits fun as well as some form of learning experience each week.

  4. February 4, 2016 at 10:07 pm

    This is a tribute to a young girl I first met as a small silent girl at the age of 4 .. she, along with her younger siblings, one only 3 weeks old, had suffered severe neglect. and the subsequent and severe resulting trauma, throughout her brief life. Her first stroke of luck was being placed with an amazing foster mother, who was generous and committed enough to accept all of these four small children into her home. When she called me to come and see if I could help her .. such an enormous challenge .. I met my small friend for the first time. She circled me, sat silently while I spoke with her foster mother discussing possible plans for her care .. and when we were first alone and talking, reading, assessing one another – she cautiously leaned into me, looked up and reached up to touch my face.
    Oh dear, she seemed to be saying .. is it possible? Is this someone who will be there for me next time, or wont I ever see her again?
    After my next visit, when we had read a little, played a few games, explored my handbag for lipstick and mirrors and my iphone for photos .. her foster mother phoned me to say that M had told her that I was “her best friend” .. after only 2 visits – how heartbreaking was that!

    I know that this placement would have not continued without my support, and I know that M enjoys being with me – we garden, we cook, we paint, swim, visit galleries .. her school work has been of a high standard and one of her earlier teachers told me that she knew M had been read to regularly, that it was easy to tell.

    So rewards – well, I feel that they have been mostly mine. When I found a note left on my desk after a recent visit saying -“you are the best person in the world .. and I love you .. M” – and she told me that when she turned 18 she would probably come and live with me (she knows that she can do as she wants when she turns 18!) – I know that although the demonstrative love and affection that you may have received from your own children, and grandchildren is not the way of a child in care, that they will have great difficulty expressing affection or empathy – but that somehow, underneath, a positive feeling of self-worth is being established.
    So, to be able to make a difference to a child’s life, one who was so deprived initially, will give you so much joy. Please give it a go –

I would love it if you would tap out a few words here!