Published On: 22 July 2020Categories: Stories

In a frenzied 15 minutes, Sharon Webber helps serve breakfast to dozens of swarming children while also signing a girl’s plaster cast, commending another girl on her pink hair, consoling a child whose rabbit has died, remarking on a child’s smile, another’s scraped forehead, listening to a regular’s latest lament about relationship dramas and chiding two boys who have taken an extra container of water.

She is well-known and much loved among the Devonport Primary School pupils despite having only started as chaplain in March. There is a comfort and ease as children sidle up to her before school at the communal breakfast bar.

As a wife, mother, pastor, mother-of-four and school chaplain, Sharon Webber is used to multi-tasking.

Sharon spends two days a week encouraging and listening to the parade of students who pass through her office, looking for a place to vent, to chat over a board game, or simply escape in silence to her lounge. She’s also involved in the school’s breakfast club on three mornings.

Anxious children feeling unloved

She says many pupils are far too anxious; about dying, about fractured families, of parents’ poor choices, of not having friends, negotiating complex relationships with step-parents and siblings, feeling unwanted and unseen.

“A few weeks ago, six out of eight kids I saw said they felt like mum or dad didn’t really want them around.”

“It’s an absolute privilege to be a safe place for these kids,” she said. “We don’t have to have all the answers. The key is just being there and helping them feel safe, loved and valued.

“Obviously there are definitely some tough days.

‘My job is to listen.’

“My job is to listen and to encourage the students, always remembering there are professions above us that we can and do rely on.”

She says chaplains occupy a special place of trust, neutral advocates who are not parents, teachers or medical professionals.

Sharon is one of 11 chaplains working across 14 schools in Devonport, Port Sorell, Latrobe and Sheffield.

The role extends to supporting teachers and parents, but 95 per cent of her time is spent with the children, starting at 7:45am with breakfast club and ending about 3:30pm.

Sharon and husband Brian have had a long association with chaplaincy since moving from Wynyard to Devonport 14 years ago to start a church. Sharon, who started as chaplain at Devonport Primary School in March, has also worked as a chaplain at Devonport Christian School and in the chaplaincy office. She has undertaken various studies and ongoing professional development days in psychology, mental health and care of children during her tenure. She is aware chaplaincy critics who see the role as a convenient front for foisting Christianity on impressionable children but has not received any personal complaints.

“Thankfully, I haven’t had any of those comments. I understand Kerrie, who was here before me, took some of the brunt of that, and had a few of those comments over the years, but I haven’t,” Sharon said.

‘I tread very carefully’

“If it does come up, then I would say that ‘no, I’m not here to talk about Jesus’, but to be an encouragement to the students, staff and parents.

“Some of the older girls will ask me if I believe in God and go to church and I will say ‘yes’. They will say they do or don’t believe in God, and I will say that’s cool, everyone has a choice.

“Every student that I see has to have a signed permission note saying that I can meet with them. They know there is the possibility that the kids may bring up God, but I tread very carefully and would ask the parents if it’s OK, if those questions come up about faith”.

By Paul O’Rourke

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