Today’s guest is Kathy Dolliver, and Kathy and I used to go to the church together and then she decided to go down and support a church plant at Snug which I think is awesome. And Kath and Chris have four boys, one of whom lives in heaven with Jesus right now and we’re going to talk a bit about Tom today. We’re also going to talk about the Uluru visit that Kath has just come back from to the cold of Tasmania.
Welcome, you’re very welcome Kath.
How did you become a Christian?
I grew up in this tiny little town in Victoria called Cobram and my mum was a really strong Christian. I was the baby of six kids. I grew up going to church every Sunday morning 9.15 every week. And she was one of those wonderful Christians that was just really active in her faith, so she would be praying for people all the time. I’d always walk into her room and she was reading the Bible and had her little prayer notes out and was dropping off a meal to someone down on the corner and that kind of stuff. So I always grew up with faith being part of my life. I was confirmed through the Uniting church when I was fourteen or something.
And then when I went to uni in Geelong, I really questioned, ‘How do I do this faith thing?’ You know, like, actively? And that’s when I think my faith really … it was really a conscious decision to follow Christ. And what does that mean in my everyday life?
Which then brought about a stack of other questions like, ‘How do I do social work and be a Christian?’ and all this kind of stuff. So it opened a whole other door and changed life in the future.
Did you have somebody that helped you through all those questions at the time?
Yeah, well I when I was at uni I lived with an older Christian couple. And they were lovely just to bounce stuff off. But I was going to a Christian uni support group, and one of my good friends there had said, ‘Have you heard of Fusion? My mum’s started with Fusion. How about I get you some data.’ And we just threw around ideas all the time, ‘What does that mean? And how does that look?’ And that kind of stuff.
So it was wonderful having someone in the same stage of life but then having other mature Christians around me to ask questions. And even returning home to Cobram, I’d go home for holidays or whatever, and I’d go catch up with a few of my mum’s friends that were like mentors for me. And say to them, ‘There’s this other church that is trying to tell me this, what does that mean?’ So I could quiz them and get an accurate picture of, ‘What does this Bible literally mean?’
It sounds like you got to uni and you suddenly went, ‘this faith has to be my own faith.’ But was there a specific day or whatever where you went, ‘From this time on, here I am as a Christian’?
I think that the middle of that first year there was really that time. And I was baptised at that time, and it was really a conscious decision to go, ‘OK, take away all that yucky stuff, that umming and ahhhing in life and from now on I’m going to live and work for you.’
And have you been involved with Fusion from that time onwards?
Yeah, well I then went to Poatina to study with Fusion and became qualified in youth work. And then was sent on a placement to Hobart where I married Chris, he was working for Fusion. And then I kind of never returned to the mainland after that, only for visits. So we got married and had our own family of four boys.
So that changed life again. And I guess that wasn’t in my picture at all of what life would be. But then Fusion have opened doors to how to make your faith active in life. And although I’m back in a different form of youth work now, I still help out with Fusion and am still part of the community there too. I’m just not working full time for them anymore.
So we’ve got several things that I know that everybody wants to follow up from that. But it’s alright, they’re all in my list of questions. Don’t panic, people, we’ll get to all of them.
I think, because you’ve mentioned Fusion, and you’ve just been to Uluru with Fusion, can you tell me a bit about that? Why do you go? What do you achieve there?
I’m part of a base camp team that head up to Uluru every year. And there’s a few different elements in that group. So 19 years ago, Fusion began a journey of taking busloads of young people that they were already currently working with, networks that youth workers already had contact through, whether it be through accommodation services, refuge centres, youth centres, all these different fields in their own state, and then travelling them all to Uluru. To the heart of the country in order to have this journey and process along the way to work out what life has meant for Indigenous people in Australia, but also not only the boundaries that have been crossed for them, but also what kind of boundaries we personally cross along our journey of life.
Not necessarily just the nations that we cross over as we journey through Indigenous communities through our state and throughout the nation. But also, how do we step over the boundaries with our mates, and our next door neighbours? And how do we have positive relationships with those people?
So part of my work up there is to head up the schools work. Schools in both the Yulara and Mutijulu. So we base ourselves out of the Yulara which is the tourist town out the other side of Uluru. And then we travel out to, on the other side of Uluru is the Mutijulu community, which is an Indigenous closed community but we have a wonderful open door to be able to go and work out there.
So I not only work in the schools out there, but also help to support the night patrol crew, which support young primary-aged people so that they can get a healthy dinner, get to bed on time, and then are able to get to school to continue learning in their own journey the following day. So it’s really a crew that work from Sunday to Thursday, every night before you need to go to school to help make school achievable for the young people out there.
So although we got there once a year and might be there for two to four weeks, this crew are there all year round. So it’s wonderful to be able to turn up and support them. And just network with, we’ve got so many friends and family there now. So whenever I either fly in or drive in, it feels like I’m coming home, in a sense, because there’s all these friendly faces and warm hugs from everyone and kids screaming as soon as they see our little 12-seater bus turn up. They come out of nowhere like, ‘You’re back again!’. They just love the time that we spend out there. And we love it too. I feel like I’m always learning there. And it’s such a picturesque place and you feel like God’s beauty is all around you.
And Indigenous people often talk about when you go to somewhere, you need to stop and wait for your soul to catch up to you. And I think it’s such a great picture. Often in life here we’re struggling in trying to timetable our lives from this to that to work to running the kids around to whatever. And all of a sudden up there, you just stop and wait for your soul to catch up to you. And you have time with God just to be able to be present and to work out, ‘Where to from here, God? What are you calling me to now?’ I think that’s such a journey for me and for those that are around us.
And then all these busloads of young people from all the different centres turn up on one particular weekend, all together. So you have about 150 young people turn up. And as base camp we host that weekend so that they don’t just become tourists, but they learn about the land, and the Indigenous people there, and about life there and about art, and language, and hospitality. And about whether you should climb the rock. Things like that.
So they get that teaching from the Anangu about the Tjukurpa which is the law of the land. And they get to learn the language of the Pitjantjatjara. It’s wonderful.
So I guess the fact that you’re going there year after year, is one of the things that changes it from ‘volun-tourism’ to actually being a helpful part of the community there?
I know when I was talking to one of the wonderful ladies up there, Dorothea, and she said, ‘Some groups will just come in, do their little stint, get some photos with the kids, and that kind of stuff, then duck away and never return.’ And they really want people to come and share with them, but to not just share, go away, and never return, but to keep coming back and developing those relationships. And that’s a relationship of trust, too, isn’t it?
So that you’re not just this random person but you become family, and are warmed to their community.
So you’ve got that long-term effect in the community there, have you seen long-term effects on the kids that have come up and visited?
Yeah, for sure. It’s been happening once a year for currently 19 years, next year will be the 20th year. And each of the young people that go on the journey, all have their own life struggles that they’re bringing with them. Whether it be family breakdown, or just trying to work themselves out, or social anxiety, or depression. And each of these kids, often it’s a struggle just to get themselves on the bus.
We took a bunch from Tasmania this year and a couple of the local guys here from southern Tassie, it was a struggle. And even the day before they didn’t really know if they were going to set foot on the bus because there was such anxiety with not knowing what the go is. Where to from here? So to even get on the bus is a big journey.
And then when we see them arrive at Yulara their faces are lit up because all of a sudden they’ve become part of a community where people care about them and love them and are willing to ask the questions about how they’re really travelling. And where to from here? How can we support you better?
So they have this huge big weekend up there and then the whole trip back their group leaders are asking, ‘Where to from here? How can we literally support you? Can we go back into your school and meet with the principal with you and work out what next steps are best put into place? Or do you want us to help meet with the family? Can we put some stuff in place to make sure life is a bit simpler for you at home? Or do you need to come into our accommodation program?’
And we’ve seen all these kids over the years take these dramatic life changes. Where some kids have said, ‘Wow, I was at the point of wanting my life to end. And all of a sudden now I can see there’s purpose.’ And even one of the boys from down south this year said, ‘I know now why you wanted me to come. I didn’t think there was anything for me in life, and now I know there’s a way forward.’
So if we can change just one life each year I think, ‘Oh wow, what a journey!’
So you said you’re sort of in youth work now, what do you do for a job?
I’m currently a chaplain in Snug primary school, two days a week. And I’ve been in that position for eight years, currently. I’m one of the longest serving chaplains, in the one school, in Tasmania. It’s such a wonderful experience to be in there. All four of my children have gone through that school. Two are still there. And so it’s wonderful to be on the grounds where they are going to school, helping to make a difference there. But also to be part of the community.
We live in that community. As you said earlier we’ve become part of a church-plant down there. And we see that as a way of being able to reach out to the community and put our faith straight into action. Be able to invite the person from school along to the activity at church or whatever. And I want to be able to serve that community so I help to organise food hampers and things that help to support day-to-day living. But then also to be able to be part of launch into learning and things like that so that I can help to see the progression for not only little people and bigger people but also their parents, and help to find networks for them to keep sane in this parenting. And all that kind of stuff.
And I also help in learning support another two days in another school, in the high school area in that way. So helping to support kids with additional needs.
And I also help to write grants for organisations too.
Yeah. A full life.
Because you’re working in a state school, but as a chaplain, there’s all sorts of boundaries around there about not being able to share your faith. So how do you balance being such a faith-filled person with such a strong mission, with not being able to say anything?
It’s not the same as I guess RE [Religious Education] teaching used to be years ago, where you’d be going into the school and teaching about God straight up. But I always think of that saying about making life an action so that it’s seen rather than just heard. That people can experience your faith.
I think that makes a difference. When people can say, ‘Geez. there’s something different about that person, they’re always giving me a smile, always willing to help out.’ So I think getting beside people often in their times of struggle and need, then opens the door to them later coming back to you, maybe outside of school, and saying, ‘What’s the go? Why are you like this? And how do I get some of that?’
There have been people from school who have now joined our church. But that’s not necessarily come from having those full-on conversations in a school. They might ask me at school, ‘Do you go to church?’ or ask me questions like that. And it’s fine to answer questions that people ask you. But it’s just about balancing respect for different cultures and communities and those around you as you go about your day-to-day work.
I’m really getting the vibe from you about community and how important community is. Because there is such a loneliness epidemic around the place but it seems like you’re all about building community, whether it’s through Fusion or through your work in the schools and the church. Just to build that community around you.
Oh for sure. And I mean how many people now don’t necessarily know their next door neighbour? So how do you network and be open so that you know those around you? And really know their world. We talk about that ginosko that moment when something clicks for you. So being able to really know someone else’s world, that line of empathy rather than sympathy. Where you would not only walk alongside someone, but actually enter into their world along the way. Have the opportunity to actually listen to their world.
And I think community is so important, because things like parenting can be so lonely. Especially when they’re younger, so you need others around you to go, ‘Oh yeah, that’s normal.’
I have a great relationship with the child health nurse down at Snug who actually operates out of the same primary school. We’re able to throw ideas back and forward, and get networks for people who might need it, and just make sure that everyone around us is supported as best as possible. That you’re set up the best to be able to achieve life.
Because you need that kind of support around you. You need that mate down the road to, you know, pawn your kids off to so that you can go for a walk or whatever it might be. To be able to survive those day-to-day things along the way.
I could not agree more.
Let’s talk about Tom. So Tom was born with quiet a severe disability?
Yeah, so Tom would be sixteen now. So quite some time ago when he entered the world, he was born with abnormally high muscle tone, and a partial pallet cleft (so a little hole in the back of the roof of his mouth) so he naturally was seeing a paediatrician for checkups, to check where to from here? And we were seeing an occupational therapist and physio just to try and relax those muscles. And he’d had quite a few tests to try to work out, what is this thing?
And then when he was three, the paediatrician was away so he was just seeing a registrar. And they thought they heard a hole in his heart. So they sent us for further tests and within a week or so we were in Melbourne. And they found it wasn’t actually a hole in the heart, it was a restrictive cardiomyopathy.
So along with all the other little things that went around Tom’s world, that made him short in stature, and had this abnormal high muscle tone and a few other little bits and pieces along the way, they then realised that he had this heart condition. Whether he’d had that before, who knows? But from there we juggled what that meant amongst all of that too.
And I think we were blessed that God gave it to us bit by bit, instead of throwing it all at us at once. We’d gone to Melbourne, they did an exploratory surgery to try to work out if it was possible for him to go on the heart transplant list. What would it mean?
And I remember the cardiologist saying, ‘This is the second-worst heart I’ve ever seen. I can’t believe he’s walking around.’ And he said, ‘Look, I think you’ve probably got six months to two years with Tom.’
So at that point we made a conscious decision about having quality of life with Tom and for him not just to be flat on his back in a hospital bed, but for us to do whatever we could to extend that time that we had with him but also for it to be a great life for him to have too. To be able to have mates around and to be able to go on trips away. And those kind of things. While juggling blood tests and all that kind of stuff amongst it all.
So I guess when you were at that point community was really important to you as well?
Yeah, for sure. And across all of Tom’s journey community was really important. Tom passed away when he was seven. And he’s in a better place now. And he knew all along. He was like, ‘Ah, can we just stop all these needles? How about I just go to be with God? What is with this?’
So he was OK with where he was going next. But we needed that added support around us to help support us in the process too.
We had one lady from church that used to just randomly come and pick our washing up from the front door and then drop it back the next day already done. She knew that we were just going through so many loads because there were so many accidents and vomiting and everything, particularly towards the end when we had palliative care for Tom at home.
And it meant that there was all this additional washing and she knew that it was a practical thing that she could put in place.
And we had other friends that would come and stack the dishwasher and things like that. Which was really important because at the time that Tom passed away I was 36 weeks pregnant with our youngest, Eli. And that added another dimension too.
Along that journey you needed people to bounce ideas off or to say, ‘What do you think? Do you think we should go do this?’
And at the time of Tom passing away my mother was passing away too. They both died within one week of each other, both being palliatively cared for. And there was that sense that I really wanted to duck home to say goodbye to Mum but I didn’t want to leave my child here, knowing that he might pass while I was gone.
So there was that real juggle of trying to work it out and be with everyone who needed me at the time.
It sounds like you were being torn in a million pieces. Because you were looking after two other small boys at the same time.
Yeah, that’s right. Trying to make life possibly a little bit normal for the two of them amongst all the ins and outs of life. Trying to make sure that I still got to do pickup for Ben at school. And things like that while still being able to get on the floor and play cards with Jay. Trying to juggle all that while caring for a child—
I wasn’t great at getting on the floor and playing cards with anyone when I was 36 weeks pregnant!
Yeah, those are the times, hey?
Did you manage to see your mum?
Yes I did. Tom had a really good day one day so I jumped on a plane, my brother picked me up from Melbourne, and we drove to see Mum. She’d been put in hospital which actually made the trip closer. So we drove the one and a half hours, ducked in, saw her, and got back, got on a plane, and got home, and Tom had a horrible day the next day.
So it was just meant to be. God gave me that time to be able to spend with her and to say goodbye. And just rest next to her and spend that time which was lovely.
That’s really full on.
And that’s what life was like, these fleeting moments amongst life at that time, coming and going and trying to appreciate those little moments along the way too.
And how have you come to terms with Tom passing? I know he was just so full of faith and he was an absolutely gorgeous cheerful boy and everybody loved him. But as you say, it’s been nearly ten years now.
I think different markers impact in your timeline. I was describing to a friend the other day that there’s almost like a before and after. Before your child gets really sick, or after they pass away. Something like that.
And then there comes these markers: The first Easter they’re gone, the first Christmas, the first anniversary of them passing away. The thirteenth birthday and the sixteenth birthday. Those things really strike you more than other days.
And I think, particularly in the first year, little moments would just get me all the time. I really struggled to dish up the right amounts of plates of food. I was always dishing up an extra one all the time and then thinking, ‘What am I doing?’
Little things like that affect the day-to-day and then you think, ‘Oh no, I’ve just got to pick myself up and deal with everything that life throws at me.’
And fortunately I think we had the blessing of other children and it meant that someone’s going to drag me out of bed, even if I feel like I don’t want to get out of bed, or I want to curl up in a ball. And yes, there’s moments of crying in the shower or that kind of thing but, it’s not that it gets easier along the way, but I guess your coping mechanisms develop along the way.
You find ways to be able to go your day-to-day without feeling teary all the time. Or without everything jumping out at you. And I guess appreciating the moments, so something might strike you that you think, ‘Oh Tom used to say that’ or ‘Tom used to do that’ but then it becomes a smile rather than a tear, necessarily.
So finding ways for life to continue and you’re trying to work out ways — how did Tom impact? So that I can use those skills and those gifts to others around me. Rather than it being a life that’s gone that I can no longer learn from. I can continue to learn from my life experience, being a mother of this awesome child.
Julie who I talked to a couple of weeks ago, she said that asking how Jesus can use this makes it easier, instead of ‘why did this happen to me?’
People often say things like, ‘How can you believe in a God when he took away your son?’ But you tend to think that in that moment, how could I do life without God? What a struggle it would be if he wasn’t there strengthening me? Because then what is there to wake up for in the morning? How do you do life without the extra shoulder to rest on?
And sometimes you need carrying amongst all of that. And that’s what God will do. God will let you rest on him when you need it. And it’s not that he’s throwing all these bad things at you but actually that these bad things are happening and he will be there for you amongst it.
He will strengthen you when you need strength, and give you hope when you need hope. And give you the day-to-day skills that you need, when you need it most.
People will often say when I pray that I always pray for wisdom in the moments when I need it most. Because I think there’s that struggle of that unknowing, sometimes. ‘What do I do this moment God? I’m happy to do whatever you want me to do, but what do you want me to do?’ So I’m asking for that wisdom in that.
Is there a time that you feel particularly close to God?
I think in times of struggle I feel closer to God. I think there’s even that moment, like, for years Chris and I were both full-time volunteers for Fusion. So the budget was very, very tight. You didn’t know when any money would come in. So you’re living off, whatever. I remember at times having to return things to the supermarket with my receipt to get the money to pay the whatever. So there was such a struggle.
And I think in those moments when you’re living day to day, you’re more dependent on God and closer to him. You’re praying more and you’re looking for opportunities, looking for opportunities to share the gospel and looking for opportunities to hear what he’s saying to you amongst it all. And I think that’s when you feel closer to God when you’re not surviving off your own stuff, your own money that you’ve built up, your own, you know, all these structures that you put around yourself to make yourself feel comfortable.
So I think I feel closer to God when struggles come my way. Because that’s when I’m asking, ‘Please be near me, God. Please shelter me and give me all I need in this moment. All that I need to cope through this moment.’
What’s the one thing about God or Christianity you wish everybody knew?
I wish everyone knew that God loved them, and that he is there in those moments when you need him most. When you’re feeling lonely or anxious or depressed, or all that stuff that life throws at you. I wish everyone knew that there was some person there waiting for them. That he’s there to protect them and look after them in the times when no one else is there.
Thank you so much for sharing with us today it’s been amazing.
Thanks for having me.