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My superhero wears a purple shirt

Alexandra Tolmie

I’m fortunate that I can name a strong circle of women who support and inspire me including my mum, my aunts, my colleagues and my best friends. But when I was suffering with post-natal depression I didn’t tell any of these women about how I was feeling. I didn’t want to reveal how deeply I was struggling. On the eve of International Women’s Day I found it fitting that I was able to interview one of my personal role models, Kristie Ryan, a woman who inadvertently supported my recovery and that of many other women in Canberra going through the same journey. This is Kristie’s story.

Kristie is a superwoman. Before making the leap to become a (now former) Gymbaroo franchise owner, Kristie was a primary school teacher for 15 years. She’s also a breast cancer survivor, Relay for Life participant and a massive contributor to the community. Kristie has always been the volunteering type—participating in the New South Wales Rural Fire Service before her diagnosis—but it was after beating cancer that she really began to lean into her strong desire to help others.

Gymbaroo seems an unlikely hang-out for a superhero. The massively popular early childhood development program in Fairbairn runs classes designed to develop essential motor skills in children and to inform parents of the importance of early childhood development in health, learning and behaviour. I initially went along after a recommendation from one of my mothers’ group friends, having no idea of the long-term impact it would have on me and my children.

I turned up to my first class clutching a six-month-old; I was struggling to breastfeed with a head full of extreme anxiety and self-loathing. I was greeted by the lovely Sue, who exuded warmth, understanding and support. Throughout that term Sue built a strong rapport with me and my little person, and showed me how to delight in the small moments and feel confident that I was doing the best job I could. From the broader Gymbaroo community I have also learned lifelong lessons about the magic of osteopathy, the sneakiness of food intolerances and most of all the incomparable joy of being an observer and facilitator of your child’s development.

The staff at Gymbaroo, almost all of whom are teachers or nurses, are imbued with the same love of learning and helping others as Kristie is. She tells me they’re all “pretty good at picking the mums who need that extra TLC” and the staff have had training from PANDSI (Canberra’s Post and Ante Natal Depression Support and Information organisation). Kristie says the aim is to get these parents to Gymbaroo as much as possible, even if it means offering free classes, because it ensures the mum and the baby are out of the house in a safe place with supportive, understanding people and a broader network to tap into.

Kristie smiles and says, “I think it’s quite a rewarding role for all of us, that we’ve been able to help people in this way.”

I mention that a major stressor for depression and anxiety is sleep deprivation and Kristie doesn’t hesitate to say “food!”. She tells me it was a lightbulb moment about her son that started her own journey of discovery about the effects of food intolerances on her children’s health, learning, behaviour and sleep.

“I went to a Gymbaroo conference where someone was giving a talk about salicylates and amines and I thought ‘oh that’s Alex. That’s Alex for sure’,” she says.

Going through this experience with both kids has enabled Kristie to share her comprehensive knowledge with other parents. In 2012, Gymbaroo Canberra hosted Sue Dengate‘s famous presentation on food intolerances, ‘Fed up with Children’s Behaviour’.

Kristie is a passionate advocate for breast cancer education and support. She freely shares her story with anyone who asks: Her husband found a painless pea-sized lump in her breast that was initially dismissed as a blocked milk duct, but her GP had a strong feeling that a biopsy should be done. When they found it was cancer, her surgeon recommended she have a complete mastectomy.

“Chris didn’t like the idea of it,” she admits. “But I just said ‘my aim is to be around.’ I’ve had parents ring up since then and tell me they’ve found a lump and because of my experience they’ve actually looked into it further.”

Despite taking daily anti-cancer medication, this incredible woman is pretty well unstoppable. But she feels she’s been blessed by the amazing support she received and continues to receive.

“It’s a journey that you don’t want to do but you have to go on, and we’ve made amazing friends on that journey,” says Kristie.

The reason she and her family participate in Relay for Life is to give back and to get the message out there that even people in their 30s can get cancer (so please check your boobies, ladies!)

Kristie bought Gymbaroo eight years ago as a “lifestyle choice” so she could be more present in her children’s lives. Although Gymbaroo is currently in the process of transitioning to its new owner, Kristie won’t exactly be sailing off into the distance—she’ll still be working at the Fairbairn site, as well as managing the current roll out of Gymbaroo into child care and early learning centres in Canberra. She’s also helping out at Gymbaroo Head Office, writing and advising on their latest programs.

Kristie has touched so many people’s lives with her light and love.

“I’ve made some amazing contacts and friends for life through Gymbaroo,” she smiles.

If you are experiencing overwhelming worry and/or feeling down and it’s negatively affecting your life every day, speak to your GP or MACH nurse and find out more about the services PANDSI can offer Canberra parents here.

If you need immediate support you can call LIFELINE on 13 11 14 or BeyondBlue on 1300 224 636.

If you or someone you know is going through cancer, Cancer Council 13 11 20 provides a confidential telephone support and counselling service (cost of a local call).

The essentials
What: Relay for Life
When: Saturday 28 & Sunday 29 March
Where: Australian Institute of Sport Athletics Track, Leverrier Crescent, Bruce

You can support Kristie’s team, The Ryans’ Express here.


Alex Tolmie

Alex is the founder and co-chair of the Department of Education and Training Women's Network and a mum of two gorgeous little girls. She has overcome big challenges as a new mother and now loves to help others become confident, joyful mamas themselves. She blogs about her experience at More about the Author

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