Kathy Toirkens probably knows more about the population of Braidwood than most anyone else.
She knows its youngsters, their parents and extended families, their friends – just about everything you’ve ever wanted to know about the small rural community about an hour’s drive from Canberra.
For the past 40 years, Kathy has worked at Braidwood Preschool, most recently as its director but starting out in October 1983 as a teacher. She loves that she has taught the children of parents who were once preschoolers themselves and even some of her first young charges who grew up to marry each other – “and I get to teach their children”.
“When we celebrated the 40th anniversary it was wonderful to hear from so many former students,” she said.
“There were comments from people I hadn’t heard from in such a long time. It brought back such good memories … I remember one message in particular from a boy I think he was in my first year. It was a tough time for him and his family, I remember. But he remembers me giving him a hug.
“Preschool is such an important time for children, such an important stage in their life.
“It is important for them to learn through playing, to feel safe and secure, to build relationships, face new challenges.”
Kathy remembers well the day she travelled with her parents from their home at Mudgee for the job interview at Braidwood.
In those days, she said, pages of the Saturday Sydney Morning Herald were carpeted with ads on the ‘Positions Vacant’ page.
“It was a long time ago, but I do have clear memories of coming to Braidwood for the interview and staying overnight here. It was for my first teaching job. I remember coming out of the interview thinking it went well, everyone was so lovely.
“I had to wait a couple of days to hear that I got the job. Someone said later that I was the second choice for the job – I guess it was like one of those sliding door moments,” she laughed.
Spending 40 years at the school provides so much fodder when it comes to telling the story of a town and its people. Of how it grew from a tiny rural community into the thriving, artistic, innovative town it is today.
“Back then, it was a more rural kind of place,” she said. “The first year I started I think we had groups of about eight children in the class, but that grew. The next year we had about 20 but we didn’t get back up there very often.”
When Kathy started teaching, she was joined by “the other Cathie”, Cathie King, who was the assistant teacher at the time – and for many years, it was just the two of them running the school.
“We have had 40 wonderful years of friendship,” Kathy said.
Kathy recently stood down as preschool director and has cut her working days back to just a couple a week. But you get the feeling the town’s youngsters and their early education, will always remain in her heart.
A keen photographer, she has recorded many of the key moments of the school and its children, including images for their class cards and special school events. “It started as a hobby, but I really love it.”
Running a preschool in a rural community where drought and fire appear too often on the horizon, has been challenging, according to Kathy.
“The Open Gardens is our main fundraiser, and we also have a community calendar that local businesses support. But I have to say we have been very fortunate over the years to have a community like Braidwood that supports us so well. During the drought, for some parents, it was a real struggle to financially support the school as they had in the past.
“It was a challenging time,” she said. “We even considered closing one day a week, but we managed to get through the drought without having to do that – thanks to this wonderful community.”
To mark the 40th anniversary, the community paid tribute to Kathy on social media: “Kathy touched the lives of so many individuals and is a valued member of our community. We are extremely grateful to be led and inspired by Kathy on a daily basis and appreciate all that she brings to the preschool.”
And among the many congratulatory comments from parents: “Congratulations Kathy, you have provided so many children with the absolute best foundation and start in life they could ever hope for, including mine. Forever grateful and in awe of your tireless patience, kindness, gentleness and grace with which you deal with all these little ones.”