It was a chance meeting that became a life-changing moment for nursing graduate Bronwyn Sheehan. Since that day, she’s set about changing the life of kids in care - one book at a time. Shirley Godlewski spoke to the founder and Executive Director of The Pyjama Foundation.
Bronwyn Sheehan was a nurse in Queensland when she met Jackie, a foster carer looking after a little boy who had come in wearing winter clothes during a hot Brisbane summer to cover the bruises on his body. Jackie had cared for more than 100 children over 35 years.
Impressed, Bronwyn looked a little closer into the world of children in care, and was shocked to discover that 92 per cent are below the average reading level by the age of seven, and 75 per cent will not complete schooling.
The ACU graduate realised that many foster carers – often juggling several children and dealing with complicated issues – may not have time to read to the children every night.
So in 2004 The Pyjama Foundation was born.
“There are currently around 36,000 children in care in Australia, and I really believe it is the community’s responsibility to step up and contribute to helping our vulnerable children,” Bronwyn said.
The program provides volunteers known as Pyjama Angels to read to children living in foster care – to not only alleviate the pressures faced by foster carers, but to improving the literacy and numeracy outcomes of the children.
“We have been blown away by the amount of people that want to volunteer for our organisation,” Bronwyn said. “The inspiration we get from these people wanting to contribute their time really drives us forward.
“Most people thought I was mad to start my own charity. It was a huge juggling act, and when I first started it was just me doing everything.
“Education is intimidating for so many children in care because from day one at school they are behind. So it’s just wonderful to see the delight on their faces when you read to them – and to know that you are helping create a love of books and of learning.”
In the Foundation’s Love of Learning Program, Pyjama Angels are matched with a child in care who has been referred – and they visit them for an hour each week to read books aloud and play educational games.
The program has attracted more than 1,7000 volunteers in Queensland and New South Wales, and is supported by authors Bryce Courtenay and Mem Fox, and Australian rugby player James Horwill. Mem Fox has said that children need 1000 books read to them before they can learn to read themselves.
“The experience doesn’t only benefit the children,” Bronwyn said. ‘I’ve listened to so many Pyjama Angels talk about how their lives have been transformed. The relationship that is formed between a Pyjama Angel and the child is amazing, and the children realise that their volunteer visits them because they want to – not just because it’s their job.”
And it’s not just the smiles on kid’s faces that tell them how well the program is working.
An independent assessment on the program completed last year found that 90 per cent of foster carers saw the child’s literacy skills improve, 82 per cent of children in the program said they enjoy having a mentor visit them, and as a result of the program 67 per cent of children are reading more books.
In 2008 Bronwyn was a national finalist in the Telstra Business Women’s Awards, and in 2009 she was named Queensland Australian of the Year.
“It’s not easy for our volunteers – with all required to file paperwork, attend an interview, provide references, undertake a child safety check, and attend training – but when it all comes together, that’s when magic happens.”