Bella

The sheer joy of being heartbroken

By Charmayne Allison

Growing up as one of 10 children would be crowded enough for your average individual but for one woman - whose family always managed to find room for one more - a lesson that has given her a role in the rescue of so many young lives.

Having your heart broken, over and over, is one of the most rewarding parts of Priscilla Jasper's life.

She still gets misty-eyed when she recalls the time she handed a foster child his first wrapped birthday present.

The little boy was so overwhelmed by receiving a gift with his name on it he couldn't bear to open it.

“He just stood there, cradling it, never wanting the moment to end,” she said.

“Another boy opened his present with the same wonder, but then put everything back in the box and said, 'when do I have to give it back'?”

If that doesn't break your heart, you may have no soul.

And that's what keeps Priscilla going.

As co-director of Shepparton's Southern Cross Kids' Camp — a camp aimed at giving children in foster care a week of happy memories — Priscilla has seen, first-hand, the impact love has on those who have rarely (perhaps never) experienced it.

She's had this passion for reaching out to the vulnerable and neglected from day one.

Even as a little girl, she'd pretend her dolls were orphans, hiding them outside then, one by one, searching until every last one was found.

She'd then wrap them in blankets, clothe them and give them shelter in her dollhouse.

It might have started out as a child's game but it would prove an uncanny prediction of what she'd be doing in another 20 years.

Priscilla's passion for helping others seems to run in the blood.

Growing up on a farm in Bunnaloo, her parents were respite and emergency foster carers from before she was born.

It wasn't unusual for a child to walk through the Jasper front door, stay for a week, and then leave.

But what some children could have seen as an intruder was, to Priscilla, just a new friend — if a temporary one.

And as the second eldest of 10 children, she was accustomed to new faces joining the family.

That's right, a metric dozen.

An overwhelming number to most, Priscilla's parents decided to double that, sponsoring a child for each new Jasper baby born.

“It was always a mission of our family, because we'd been blessed with so much, to give to those who were less fortunate,” she said.

“Because of that, we understand the value of what we have and want to care for others.”

Committed Christians, the Jaspers' faith was a key in this.

Believing they could trust God with their own family, they decided to give generously to those in need in their community (and the wider world) as well.

However, by the time Priscilla was 11, her parents (understandably) decided to focus on raising their own children for a while, putting foster care on hold.

At that time, the children would spend two hours a day riding the bus to and from school.

It was eating away into precious time together as a family, so Priscilla's parents decided to homeschool them instead.

“It was a purposeful decision, nothing to do with the education system or any negative influences,” she said.

“But family time was just very important.”

Priscilla described the following years as a time of real growth.

Suddenly homeschooled, she became very shy, feeling she didn't have much in common with her former friends.

“But I eventually realised, if I wanted to have friends I needed to be a friend. So I tried to start reaching out to children who were on their own,” she said.

“It was powerful, because we saw this exemplified in our own parents.

“People may think our family is quite insular and sheltered. But actually, so much of what our parents encouraged us to do was outward focused.”

In 2008, the family gained another member when a woman the Jaspers had previously fostered showed up at their door, desperate for help.

“We had fostered this woman and her brother for a short time when they were children so we had a long-standing relationship with them,” Priscilla said.

“The woman had a little girl, Desten, whom she asked us to take for a three-week respite.”

Desten stayed for 10 years.

A few years after she came to the Jaspers, she was accepted for permanent care.

But she was part of the family long before that.

“Once you've done life with someone and protected and advocated for them through hard times — as we'd done with Desten — you become family,” Priscilla said.

There are several days in her 33 years (including the day Desten arrived) that stand out to Priscilla.

Another is July 23, 2010.

She was at a conference when she saw a clip about Southern Cross Kids' Camp.

“I immediately thought, 'I have to do that',” she said.

“I always thought you had to go overseas to help orphans, but there are children right here who need our help.”

She attended her first SCKC that year.

And never looked back.

The camp pairs children in foster care with “buddies” — trained young people throughout the region who give the children unconditional time, love and encouragement.

“The one-on-one aspect is so powerful,” Priscilla said.

“Nine times out of 10, the children say their favourite thing was having a buddy. Someone who actually cared for them.”

The camp highlighted desperate needs.

“Some children would take food from the dinner table and hide it under their pillows at night, because they didn't have enough food at home,” Priscilla said.

“I asked a little girl what the one thing was she wanted to get out of camp.

“She said, 'a new pair of shoes'. She was wearing a pair of rotten old sneakers no child should have to wear.

“We ended up getting her a pair of purple thongs — her favourite colour — and she barely took them off.”

Since that first year, Priscilla has completed 13 camps, now as co-director in Shepparton while also recently becoming a foster carer on the side.

“Camp was just one week of the year. I wanted to do more,” she said.

“There was such a shortage of carers, but I worked full-time and couldn't afford to quit my job.

“But then I discovered respite care, which was only on weekends and school holidays, when I'm free.”

Respite care gives foster carers a chance to go away for a much-needed break or holiday.

“I get to be like an aunty to the kids,” Priscilla said.

“In a short period of time, I make sure their needs are met.

“Above all, I make sure they know they're safe and loved and given plenty of happy memories — in a life that may not have many.”