Julie Toombs cooking with a student

Julie Toombs cooking with a student at Miandetta Primary School. 'Julie has a schoolyard full of grandchildren."



By Paul O'Rourke


Chaplain Jules exudes a gentleness, joy and genuineness that children find irresistible.

With a shock of short, spiky grey hair, a huge smile and a comforting presence, Julie Toombs is quickly gaining the trust of children at Miandetta Primary School since starting as a volunteer chaplain in October last year.

At 60, she’s the cool grandmotherly-type with a few tatts and an inexhaustible energy and matching capacity to love, who makes children feel safe and valued.

She keeps showing up in the playground every Wednesday and Friday, taking an interest, asking questions, listening without judgment, applauding their handstands, cartwheels, craft and schoolyard soccer goals. In return, they take the time to school her about Tik Tok, Insta and Fortnite, and share their hurts and fears. They make up silly rhymes about “Julie Jules”; songs of endearment.

A second chaplain, Sam Jordan, also works two days a week at Miandetta. Together they make a formidable team, partners for all seasons with complementary skills and experience.

Chaplain Jules knows a thing or three about life, family, children, school. Her own children were 6 and 9 when she became a single mum. She worked as a teacher’s aide for 40 years and has a long history of volunteering and caring for those around her doing it tough; the dull and discarded, the frequently overlooked who needed a meal, a kind word or a hug.

Julie volunteered as a mentor in Ulverstone with the New Mornings organisation, and studied mentoring and community service at TAFE.

These days, Julie combines chaplaincy and volunteer student mentoring with working the entry gate on weekends at Wesley Vale Football Club, meeting with some older mums who need a bit of care and conversation, and wandering the neighbourhood in search of conversation and service with Soffee, her beloved pomeranian/papillon cross.

“One day, Soffee wanted to go out late in the afternoon. It wasn’t our usual time but she was persistent, so I went with it,” Julie said.

“Then she was insistent we go the opposite way to our usual route.

“As a result, we discovered a woman who had fallen in her garden and needed help.”

The story explains Julie’s ministry.

She goes where she’s needed, when she’s needed, as God directs.

‘Thanks for putting a smile on my face.’

She wasn’t interested in the children’s bedroom furniture advertised on Facebook, but she did notice how beautiful and tidy the room looked, and commented that the seller must be a “loving mum”. She received the reply: “I’ve been having a down time lately. Thanks for putting a smile on my face.”

Julie discovered Devonport Chaplaincy in 2019 when she moved from Ulverstone to Latrobe and heard mentoring chaplain Peter Smith speak at her church. She trained as a volunteer student mentor and went to work. Then COVID struck.

She used lockdown to prepare meals at the Loaves and Fishes kitchen until mentoring resumed.

Pete Smith immediately saw she would make an excellent chaplain.

“Julie has an enormous capacity to love people unconditionally,” he said.

“Her age, gender and gentleness and desire to serve others are huge advantages.

“She has a schoolyard full of grandchildren at Miandetta.”

Julie wells up when asked what chaplaincy means to her.

He pauses before answering. “It’s impossible to put into words how much I get out of being in the lives of these children,” she answers.

“I am that caring grandparent, the one who is around to watch them play in the sandpit at school and who remembered they were playing sport on the weekend or visiting relatives and took the time to ask.”

Julie knows from her years as a teacher’s aide the enormous long term benefit of being a stable, consistent presence in the lives of children.

“You meet adults who were in prep when you first met them and remember you fondly.

“Like the old Pantene shampoo ad says, ‘It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen’.

“I’d like to see children get to upper primary-age and recognise that I was someone who added to their life.

“You can’t fix all their problems, but you can show that you care.”

Tough days at the office


Julie says the complexity and severity of issues affecting the region’s children are a heartbreaking challenge, occupational hazards for chaplains.

“A Grade five student came to school high, waving a wad of money around. I couldn’t cope. I had to go home that day.

“There are kids who come to school with no breakfast or lunch, who don’t have their hair done or a nice schoolbag.

“There are lots of behavioural problems stemming from all kinds of things. Mum has a new partner and doesn’t have time for me, or dad works on the mainland and can’t get back due to COVID.

“Kids are fidgety and unable to concentrate because they haven’t eaten or are tired and listless because they watched Youtube clips all night and haven’t slept.

“Some of the girls are withdrawn and don’t want to talk.”

Such is her capacity to care, Julie has applied to do a third day of chaplaincy at Andrews Creek Primary School.

The kids there are in a for a treat.

Soffee

Sofffee the wonder dog.