IT was during a trip to Disneyland in 2013 that James and Kristy Thomas’s lives changed forever.
Inspired by the magical atmosphere the theme park created and the joy it brought to kids, the Pitt Town couple decided other families should have the opportunity to visit - families that needed it most.
Soon after their return, they developed Feel The Magic Foundation, which is now Australia’s largest grief education and support program for children aged seven to 17.
The charity’s sole purpose is helping kids dealing with the loss of a sibling, parent or guardian, and James and Kristy were both nominated for Australian of the Year awards this year in recognition of their work.
“The nomination came as a surprise, but it’s very humbling. To be nominated in that category was very unexpected, but it’s good to be acknowledged,” James told the Gazette.
Feel The Magic Foundation began by sending grieving families to Disneyland, and in 2015 launched Camp Magic, a camp it hosts three times per year for kids dealing with death.
During its relatively short four years of operation, the charity has secured sponsorships from some major brands including Commonwealth Bank and Wests Tigers, and has attracted the support of counsellors, psychologists and mentors, who all give their time to attend Camp Magic on a volunteer basis.
The charity’s ambassadors include 60 Minutes journalist Michael Usher, Central Coast Mariners goal keeper Liam Reddy, and Channel Nine News reporter Dimity Clancey.
“Our sole purpose was to take families to a happy place and give them memories and something to look forward to. What evolved from that was a connection of families on their return, due to their similar experiences of grief,” said James.
“There was nothing out there for grieving families to give them support - unless they’ve got cash and can see a psychologist.
“We wanted to help them to never forget their lost one but learn to live with it and grow from it and to achieve their full potential.”
James and Kristy are no strangers to grief. When Kristy was a little girl, her big brother Corey died of leukaemia. In James’s case, both his parents passed away young.
“I lost my dad when I was 25, and at that time I wasn’t taking things too seriously. Being an only child it was a catalyst for me to grow up and I took it upon myself to look after my widowed mum. I wanted to buy a house to house my mum and my girlfriend - who is now my wife,” said James.
“I ran a sign writing business in Penrith. I worked my backside off for a few years and I was successful, bought property, holidays, cars.”
They were about to move into their Pitt Town home when James was once again struck with terrible news: “The settlement date was July 2011, on my 31st birthday, and within hours of picking up the keys and with people ready to help move in, my mother dropped dead of a brain aneurysm,” he said.
“It floored me. A double whammy, and the realisation that I was alone - an orphan. It sent me into a debilitating grief for around two years.
“I was running a business that I realised I didn’t want, and I developed a hatred for it. All I’d developed was about financial security, for material purposes. My purpose was taken away from me and the house I’d moved towards meant nothing.
“But I say this is the final kick in the pants mum gave me, and this has led me to a really fulfilling purpose.”
The Thomases are currently gearing-up for their first Camp Magic of 2017, which will take place from Friday, April 7 to Sunday, April 9 at Vision Valley – a property set on 100 acres of bushland in Arcadia, north-west of Sydney.
Applications are now open for children (or ‘campers’) and adult volunteers (who act as ‘mentors’), and people will travel from all around the country to attend.
Around 60 campers and 60 mentors are due to attend, and every child is matched with a mentor according to their needs and interests.
During the weekend, campers and mentors attend ‘talk time’ sessions run by mental health professionals, who provide age-appropriate tools for kids to implement in their day-to-day lives – for example, when they are feeling sad or lonely.
“A 10-year-old boy loses his dad, and when he gets back to school no one knows what to say to him, or somebody might say the wrong thing,” said James.
“Unless he has early intervention, it will come out in other ways in his life and that’s what we’re trying to prevent.
“These kids don’t want you to feel sorry for them, they just want someone to listen to them and to have that attention. Empathy is a key word: if you keep feeling sorry for someone, they’ll develop a victim mentality.
“We empower them to tackle the grief head on. It’s about growth and connection.”
Feel The Magic Foundation and Camp Magic are run entirely on donations, and part of James’s job is to secure as many corporate sponsors as possible to ensure the camps continue.
The team is also currently developing a parents program, as well as an ongoing support program for children to utilise between camps.
James has a lot of touching memories from his time running the charity, including the following story of a nine-year-old boy named Jordan, who travelled to Camp Magic from Melbourne.
“He is one of the most energetic, funny and confident kids you’d ever meet. But what he would never share was he lost his father to suicide at six - it brought shame,” said James.
“He thought if he was home to stop his dad, he could’ve prevented it. He blamed himself.”
After only one day at camp, Jordan felt empowered enough to share his story with the other campers and mentors.
“He shared his story with 150 people, and it was awesome for him. Three other boys in the group had also lost their fathers to suicide, and they didn’t know that about each other. Those four have a connection now that will never be broken. They became great mates and support each other,” said James.
“To normalise their situation is very important for these kids. If they don’t talk about it, they create isolation. If you meet others who share the experience, then it normalises your circumstances.”