bmag Brisbane Person of the Year candidate Bronwyn Sheehan has changed lives with the Pyjama Foundation – especially her own.
In 2004 when Bronwyn Sheehan popped in to have a cuppa with a friend, little did she realise that a soothing cuddle with a baby boy would change her life forever. Her friend was a foster mother and the little boy had been with her for less than 24 hours. “He had the worst cold I have ever seen and he had arrived in the middle of January with a Coles bag full of winter clothes.
The reason he had winter clothes was to cover up his precious body which was covered in bruises. He had big brown eyes, and if eyes are the window to the soul then his little soul had experienced far too much already,” Sheehan sadly recollects. “He broke my heart, and I knew in that moment that I wanted to do something for kids in foster care.” It didn’t take long for the 46-year-old midwife and mother-of-three to completely turn her life around and establish the wildly successful Pyjama Foundation, a charitable organisation that trains volunteers called Pyjama Angels to read weekly to children in foster care all over Queensland. “It was so confronting seeing an 18-month-old covered in bruises and the fear in his eyes.
I just thought how can I help change the direction of his life? I wanted to do something that would empower him with skills so he and others like him could stand a better chance at life, and I wanted to do something that would be useful for the foster parents. In the end it was my electrician husband Dale’s idea. He loved reading to our kids and was all, ‘it will be really easy! We will chuck 10 grand at it and you won’t have to do much at all.’ And now look at us!” Sheehan says with a laugh.
Look at them indeed. The Pyjama Foundation has grown into an organisation that successfully raises $1million a year in order to manage the army of volunteers that reads weekly to kids in care. Not only that, it’s currently being monitored by the NSW government to use as a case study for other organisations and it’s in feasibility talks with the WA government.
“Looking back, what we did was really gutsy. We never stopped to think it wouldn’t work. We were unstoppable,” Sheehan reflects in disbelief. “First, I got our structure sorted and then we saw a lawyer to find out what sort of entity we needed to be. Foster Care Queensland was really supportive of the idea and we also worked with Volunteer Queensland for what we needed to do. Then we placed an advertisement in the local paper calling for volunteers. We got 30 people from that. That was in September 2004. We trained our first volunteers in January 2005 and read to our first foster kids in February 2005.
“Since then we’ve had 2500 people referred to our organisation and currently we are reading to 1047 children every week in foster homes,” Sheehan explains in a sing-song voice, making it sound as if starting such a successful non-profit business was as easy as the grocery shopping she’s trying to do while being interviewed on the phone.
Primary school teacher of 34 years Kevin Gallard started as a volunteer with the organisation and is now the national program manager. He reveals that Sheehan’s sharp intelligence and her ability to communicate with people and really listen gives the foundation several levels of success. “She is so surprising, she can be the person next door, an ordinary mum, and then the next moment she will tell you something or do something and you just think how did you know that, how did you do that?
Working with her is fun and challenging because she is so sharp, she keeps you on your toes. But it amazes me just how simple the idea is, yet how far reaching it is. Match person A with person B and it can make a profound change to everyone’s life. Bronwyn has changed my life for the better – my wife said I was losing my spark, and I got it back because of Bronwyn and the Pyjama Foundation.”
Close personal friend and Redcliff Hospital midwife Helen Funk has known Sheehan for nearly a decade. “We met because our sons played hockey together and our husbands coached football together. To a lot of people she is a very inspirational, motivated person. But there is the work side and then the sunny, relaxed person that she is. She is a great friend. Over the years we have done lots of Sunday morning walks together which is a good time to chat and solve the problems of the world. She radiates positivity; I enjoy that aspect of her, she makes you feel happy and good about yourself.”
Sheehan would be thrilled to hear that she makes her friend happy, having only just shared with me that she has started listening to Deepak Chopra on her iPad each morning to motivate herself. “It puts my head space into a really good place for the day. For example, this morning’s message was that the purpose of life is happiness and the quickest way to be happy is to make someone else happy…how fantastic is that!”
Fantastic is one way to sum up the incredible happiness Sheehan and her Pyjama Angels are giving to children all over Queensland who desperately need it. “Life pre-Pyjama Foundation was certainly simpler, but sometimes you never know what direction life is going to take you, and I think this is my life purpose and I’m doing something that is very fulfilling.
“My message to people is never underestimate what’s possible for you to achieve. We sometimes stop doing things because we don’t think we can, or because we are not qualified, but my mother used to say there is no such word as can’t…maybe for me it’s simply that!”