The People Would Come Because It Was Needed - Interview with Karen O'Brien


Karen O’Brien has an infectious passion for the value of playgroups. With fifteen years of experience as a playgroup mum and Contact Person — and many of those as both a Zone Coordinator and for a period of time, a Project Officer — Karen’s experience spans several roles and rural communities.

First introduced to playgroup when her family moved from Gatton to Kingaroy in 1991, Karen recalls the knock on the door inviting her to bring her 12-month-old son along to the newly formed playgroup. Having loved the experience so much and being a community-minded person wanting to forge new friendships, Karen immediately became the Contact Person for the newly formed Biscuit Tin Playgroup at the local Catholic Church Hall. A long and valued association had begun.

"The group was so big and we had lots of teen mums, the church put me through basic counselling courses and I started a playgroup for teen mums — they didn’t feel like they fitted in with the dynamics of the local playgroups. Then I became the South Burnett Zone Coordinator. I was setting up playgroups and guiding them."

Returning to Gatton after five years, Karen became Zone Coordinator for the Lockyer Valley.

"I started a new playgroup there which became huge. We had 60 families, which eventually became three days a week ... I had the gift of the gab and we were given our own building and had our own toy library."

With a long gap between two of her three children, Karen was honoured when the Association employed her as a part-time Project Officer, tasked in 1999 with setting up playgroups in South West Queensland under a six-month funding contract. Karen was determined, taking every opportunity she could find to establish playgroups and develop her skills.

"I’d go across the Lockyer Valley, Toowoomba and to its outskirts setting up playgroups, finding venues and putting up notices. That’s when the toy libraries were invaluable because once you had a venue, which was the biggest challenge, then the people would come – because it was needed ... I set up 54 playgroups in six months and probably about 50 over the other 15 years. Some are still running today. My playgroups were structured. I wanted them to be educational, with the parents playing with the children. The greatest gift a parent can give a child is to play with them ...

"At conferences, I had the opportunity to attend personal development sessions with many speakers, like Dr John Irvine and child educators, which helped me personally, and I could share that with the playgroups and families I was involved with ... Even though they paid me to do a job I loved, I would have done it for nothing."

The key to Karen’s success was her passion, community spirit, getting to know playgroup members and her determination to help others. From being a support to the mothers in the groups, providing contact information for those in need and setting up playgroups for teenage mums, she loved helping others, creating a sense of belonging and facilitating family bonding.

"I didn’t have tertiary education and I had a point to prove. The key was getting to know the members and knowing their skills and strengths and tapping into those made your group even more amazing ... I felt very satisfied that I could help a lot of people. We were creating a tribe. The parents and children were happy, it was somewhere to go, and lifelong friendships were made."

Today, Karen considers establishing so many playgroups and being awarded life membership as being one of her proudest moments, along with the validation of her efforts when offered employment.

"It gave me a great sense of pride and accomplishment ... my proudest moment was when I was given life membership. I felt the gratitude and was very honoured. I was the tenth person to be awarded life membership but the first regional award."

When asked about the benefit of the playgroup movement to regional Queensland, Karen simply describes the impact as ‘huge’.

"The regions had different needs to the city – the distances, different dynamics, access and often a lack of money, so toy libraries were important ... Playgroups became a communication hub for the parents, the community really appreciated what we were doing. ... it was an exciting time and I loved the culture of it."

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