How helping others can make us happier

Julie, 61, volunteers by reading to foster children. Here’s how you can too!

It’s official, volunteering is good for you! People who volunteer regularly are happier, have higher self-esteem, psychological well-being and even helps with longevity.

Julie Thomson is a WYZA generation volunteer who lives in Bellmere, near Caboolture in Queensland. She has just had her 40th anniversary to Peter, has two adult children, works part time as a self-employed journalist and has volunteered as a Pyjama Angel for the past seven years. She tells WYZA what it is like to be a Pyjama Angel.

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“Being a Pyjama Angel is a marvellous way to transition to happy retirement for men and women – as is any volunteering for that matter” - Julie

What is a Pyjama Angel?

Being a Pyjama Angel brings into play skills we often overlook or underestimate, that don’t diminish or become superseded. These are specific skills such as reading, writing, game playing, organising and more general; such as communicating, relating, demonstrating commitment to and interest in a young person.

Whether you have been a parent or not, there were probably always someone young in your life (such as an extended family, neighbour, friend, work colleague) who benefitted from your life experience, wisdom, example, care, and sometimes love and affection.

“One of the great ironies of life is this: He or she who serves almost always benefits more than he or she who is served.” – Gordon Hinckley

What are the benefits of volunteering?

There can be a feeling when you retire/finish paid employment of being “superfluous to needs’’. Being a Pyjama Angel means you can be very much the centre of a young person’s or people’s life for an hour or two a week, and feel needed, valued and very much appreciated. It also satisfied my huge curiosity and helps me to stay plugged in with the young and all their wonderful, energetic, and at times, strange new activities and interests.

How can volunteering help?

A larger benefit is the positive effect you can have on the life of a young person, whose childhood may have weathered many storms. You can be the constant, reliable force in their life that comes and delivers anything from a friendly chat, pleasurable or instructional reading, a game, a poem, a slice of adult care and involvement that asks nothing in return. You may have had the privilege of a shiny bright life and of delivering same to your children – as I did and do.

“Research has shown that people who volunteer often live longer.” - Allen Klein

Then, being a Pyjama Angel is your chance to pay it forward; to try to enrich in some small way the life of a young person/s, bringing your values and creating memories and touchstones that can guide and help them. Just turning up, being someone they can trust and rely on, and showing the care and energy of a weekly visit is huge to children who have been let down and disappointed often in relationships - be they family, social and professional. You can make a big difference – in ways you might never quite truly measure.

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Julie enjoyng time with her family at Coogee beach, Sydney

What does it take?

The commitment can be as variable as the individual child; replenishing reading material and games, or creating activity, collecting conversation topics, or just sitting quietly and listening for the gems they might drop when their day is stilled and they feel safe and calm. If you’re someone who likes a weekly timetable to feel organised and purposeful, the Pyjama Angel visit can be one of the lynchpins to run your retirement around.

I have been a Pyjama Angel for seven years. In this time I have read regularly to six children in the foster family I have visited. Two have moved through high school, so at present, my weekly visit to the current four children can be 1 to 1.5 hours a week, to ensure all get some time with me. It’s delightful to be “fought’’ over, occasionally for first dibs.

“Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth.” - Muhammad Ali

I decided to become a Pyjama Angel because I reflected on what a special and privileged life I have led and was able to give our children. I don’t mean financially, but that of feeling very loved and cherished, being given stability and good education, a close and loving family upbringing.

In my journalism career seeing all manner of human life and tragedy, I recognised that lives often unravelled when these basics were missing. I love words and communicating and thought I might be able to pass some interest and skills in this area to equip young people to reach for brighter things than their rocky start might prescribe for them.

What’s involved?

I contacted the Pyjama Foundation through a local newspaper article and booked an interview with them, then enrolled in a training night and shortly after was assigned a family to read to. I was with this family for a few months, but circumstances changed and the children were removed. The family I was assigned next is the same one I am with now. There have been two sets of siblings here for whom I am a Pyjama Angel, ranging in age from eight to 14. I am very blessed to know this foster family and the children in their care. Wherever and whenever this role I have with them ends, I believe I will always have a deep affection and bond with them.

Being a Pyjama Angel changes over time. At first, you are a visitor to whom they must be polite, a curiosity and viewed through somewhat jaundiced eyes. The children who’ve been through multiple placements and government intervention, interviews and case workers, initially see you as another adult who comes into their life, for who knows how long, and they are aloof, assuming you’ll blow in and then out, in rapid succession.

I think the personal qualities called for in being a Pyjama Angel are patience, sense of humour, understanding, sense of childish fun, empathy, energy, curiosity and discretion. What goes on in the foster home on your visit, stays in the foster home.

The biggest benefits to me are the lessons in compassion and forgiveness I have seen, close hand, the realisation that I don’t have many of the answers I thought applied to child rearing; and the sweet joy of seeing the face of a child you’ve surprised, who is happy to see you and whose expectations you’ve exceeded.

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Helping and teaching kids is a valuable way to spend your time

Sometimes I feel tired or busy or distracted and am inclined to cancel my visit, but I have had my low spirits cast aside by the genuine joy, love and laughter I see in the foster home I visit. My problems seem trivial compared to the issues these children have faced and continue to confront. I have also learned so much through the professional development nights the Pyjama Foundation has so thoughtfully organised - on all manner of child development - which has grown my knowledge and understanding of life in general.

The foster family has been very kind and appreciative from the beginning of our time together and I wear two necklaces with angel pendants they gave me. I am always introduced by them as their “angel’’ and I have a private laugh, as I and those close to me know I am actually far from angelic.

The biggest challenges

The biggest challenges have been accepting - but sometimes my plans and expectations on how a reading visit might go, are way out. Even after seven years, I am still learning the “formulas’’ for getting X result when you put in “a’’ and “b” don’t necessarily work. These are complex, somewhat damaged, different children and largely with unknown landscape. So negotiating them is never easy, sometimes unpleasant, but always interesting and rewarding.

The biggest benefits with the children I have seen is an increased interest and confidence in speaking and reading, improvement in academic achievement and application and social confidence. I don’t like to take full credit for this. The foster parenting has been a fantastic boost for the children I visit.

The biggest challenges for them is learning to trust and invest in adult relationships when those that have gone before have hurt and disappointed them.

On being crowned the Pyjama Angel of the Year

I was delighted, albeit humbled, at being named Pyjama Angel of the Year in 2015. I believe it is my privilege to witness the true meaning of selfless love the foster family engenders and to be a part of these young people’s lives.

Another pleasure of the title is being given the opportunity to talk about the Foundation and the amazing, truly life-changing work that founder and CEO Bronwyn Sheehan and all those involved do, and to pay tribute to fellow Pyjama Angels who work with children all over the country.

I have spoken at functions, visited commercial premises and talked about the Pyjama Angels with friends and families. I know of two people who heard me who have signed on and some more who plan to when they retire soon.

Raising money on the Long Road Walk

I have taken part in two Long Walks and will be again this year. Although we amble in among the last to cross the line I love seeing the variety of people it brings together. There is something universal about caring for a child and understanding it is everybody’s business how well they grow and learn values.

It is usually a commitment of several hours, enlisting a few friends to stroll along the seashore, a pleasant post walk BBQ, and chance to share with other Angels present, some experiences, tears and laughs.


Offering a helping hand helps others and can help you too

I can only add that I urge anyone who is thinking of volunteering in their retirement or end of work transition, to look into becoming a Pyjama Angel. You will never be bored, there is great joy in making a difference to a young person’s life that cannot be measured, and you will be in great company of caring foster parents and other Pyjama Angels in an activity that all of society will benefit from.

Help raise funds for a great cause

Entry fee for The Long Road Walk, a series of 6-8km walks held in four locations across Queensland and Sydney is $25 for adults, concession/children $15. Events begin in Brisbane, Caloundra and Sydney 19th March and on the Gold Coast on the 20th March 2016. Find out more, register or donate here.

Don’t forget to get in the spirit of things and wear your pyjamas!

Looking for other opportunities to volunteer? Visit Volunteering Australia, GoVolunteer and Australian Volunteers International.

Do you have a great story to share about your volunteering or an aspect of your life? Email us at admin@wyza.com.au.

What have you gotten out of volunteering? Join the conversation below.