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Bronwyn Sheehan Founder + Executive Director The Pyjama Foundation; 2009 Queensland, Australian of the Year
07 March 2011
\"It's simple: reading empowers. Literacy equates to better life opportunities, choice and happiness. 75% of people who are incarcerated are illiterate. There is a huge link between crime and illiteracy.\"
Reading, writing and arithmetic: it's obvious to The Pyjama Foundation's Executive Director, Bronwyn Sheehan, why reading comes first. Without it we do not have the same opportunities, knowledge and ability to be empowered as those who are literate. Not to allow every child a shot at those basics is, for Bronwyn, simply unfair.
Quick to point out she grew up in a very nurturing family where being read to and reading, playing kids games, board games, puzzles were important pastimes, Bronwyn is convinced that children benefit from a good dose of childhood. That learning needs to be fun.
Fast forward to her experience with her three children – all of whom were read aloud to and who found mastering literacy easy because of that simple initial action.
\"Research supports the fact that the single most beneficial way to improve a child's literacy levels is to read aloud to them. My kids had been read maybe 2000 or 3000 books by the time they got to school and I've seen what that creates. It made me want to take the ability to love to read further.
\"My daughter had a friend who was a fostered child. Through that I got to
experience what it is to be in that situation and to see what foster carers cope with.
\"Foster kids tend to have lots of siblings, so carers often deal with multiple kids at one time and over time. Those carers are the unsung heroes of the community. They're time poor and stretched to the limit.\"
Identifying a need in the community didn't take Bronwyn long. She wanted to assist foster carers and the children they cared for by doing something practical. As a mother she understood the need for hands on support, especially when children are young, and knew that foster kids in a crowded, under resourced system didn't get a lot of one-on-one time. The research also showed that their literacy skills were low.
\"I simply took action around all that; formed The Pyjama Foundation in 2004; researched the legal and accounting requirements; wrote a program identifying the greatest need: to read aloud to children once a week, and put an ad in the local paper for volunteers. The rest, as they say, is history.
\"Over 1000 volunteers later and on the smell of an oily rag, which any Not For Profits will understand, the foundation continues to perform this enormous service on very limited funding.\"
Within minutes of our conversation beginning, Bronwyn's quiet conviction, determination and measured approach to success is self-evident. Even down the phone line the concept and its most passionate advocate are inspiring, making you wonder what challenges the foundation faces other than financial?
\"The thing that surprises me still is the requests I get for people wanting to volunteer. That's been overwhelming.
\"It makes managing our growth one of our biggest challenges. I am constantly contacted by agencies wanting our service and by people who want to be involved. Across Australia and New Zealand, I have this file of names and contacts. There is such a need for the service and for us to meet it we need to manage our growth efficiently and sustainably. This year, we're looking to expand into NSW.\"
Certainly, Bronwyn believes she underestimated the power of one on one interaction and the positive effects it has on the children and the volunteers. The foundation has been under the research microscope with Griffith University which reports that Pyjama Angels volunteer for between 11 and 44 months and are staying on average a year. For a commitment of once every week by the volunteers (95% of who are women between the ages of 25 and 55, predominantly professional and university educated), this is a high retention rate.
\"The volunteers find themselves becoming part of the children's lives. They want to stay and see it through – become part of the children's story. When they leave, in the 25 to 35 year old group, it is usually because of work – a transfer or too much on the plate – or they go off to have babies.\"
Sourcing volunteers to do the course and receive their stringent police checks (\"In Queensland, if you work with children you must get a blue card.\") is as simple as getting media exposure in the areas in which the foundation needs them. Through radio and local print media, Bronwyn says she can field more than 100 calls in a day in urban areas and, in regional areas, a more difficult prospect because of smaller populations, distance and infrastructure issues, the rate is still inspiring.
\"I never saw myself as a leader. I never gave it a thought. I'm asked about it a lot now and I speak publicly on it. I had never seen myself as inspirational and certainly had no idea the program would do as well as it has for all those involved.\"
It has been a revealing few years and eye opening in many ways for Bronwyn: \"Women are so under-rated, aren't we?\" It is both a statement and question asked with genuine surprise during our interview.
\"The men I have met who are inspiring leaders and have strong skills really talk themselves up. They do it even if they don't know what they're talking about.
\"I have had to make a conscious effort to talk about myself and my achievements, to talk about how I lead. Watching the way men handle the same thing has been good for me. I've learnt from it.
\"That's not to say in all the good leaders I've met that they aren't humble. They are. I find I'm in awe of everyone else and don't think what I'm doing is anything that special. It's the same feeling I get from those I meet.\"
Result = Effort
On the work life balance question: Bronwyn is adamant she hasn't mastered it. That challenge goes hand in hand with her belief that you only get out of something the effort you put into it in the first place. She believes it's important not to be stopped by thinking you can't do it and to make sure you surround yourself with people who share the same vision, are passionate and can help achieve the big picture.
The vision maybe grand but Bronwyn's advice is to keep the plan clear and simple and stick to it.
\"My grand vision is to reach all foster kids in Australia: to read to them, play educational games and improve their literacy levels in a fun and enjoyable way.
\"Everyone is time poor and finding balance for me is a challenge. You have to prioritise and learn to delegate. My house is not always clean. I was out last night speaking and my son is off to camp this morning. In the end, I knew I had to leave my husband and son to pack. I have no idea what will be in that bag but it all goes to making children and husbands independent.\"
In a now, now, now society where we exist on credit and it's not about patiently waiting and saving for the actual means to get all the things we think we want, Bronwyn has some reservations about our abilities to save. She sees her daughter put aside 10% of what she earns in her part-time work and thinks that's probably unusual.
\"My parents' generation were savers and for the past 30 years we've spent. The emphasis has been shifted off saving to debt and it's time to teach our kids the value of saving.
\"It's the investment in effort to get results, like investing in providing the means for kids to increase their abilities. Saving is about being able to afford to do what we want, and to be able to afford choices and not to live on what does not exist, credit.\"
My three children
Starting the Pyjama Foundation
Telstra Business women's award and Queensland, Australian of the Year.
Happiness – the joy of the moment
\"I have no regrets. Everyone makes mistakes and that is where we learn. With hindsight there are some things I may have done differently because now I can see the benefit of having done more of this research or more of that style of teaching but, at the same time, it wasn't obvious so I don't regret the decisions I made.\"