I grew up in the UK in Exeter but my mum is Australian and I have family here, so I moved here in 1999 when I was 18 initially just travelling for a year. My mum’s a nurse and my dad, who’s English, was a teacher – a principal of a special needs school, so my upbringing was grounded in nurturing and teaching. My aunty is in Byron Bay so that was my first stop and I lived and worked there for a while, and met my daughters’ dad. We moved to Sydney where I worked in a call centre in finance, just having fun and earning good money. I’d put university on hold and I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but I decided to join Nova – a holistic magazine that was based in Perth and wanted to set up an office in Sydney. I established the Sydney operation and putting together advertisers and contributors – it was isolating but so rewarding and I learnt so much about publishing and pressure of deadlines. After a while we decided to move back to Brisbane and settle down, and I worked at Griffith University for about eight years in a range of positions from admin to working with students. I ended up working with the School of Criminology and I loved it – my passion was working with the students and autonomously to create manuals and develop the career evenings and orientation projects.
I had about six months off when Sophie was born and then went back to work part-time, doing three days a week in the office. My parents moved to Brisbane in 2004 so they helped out with Sophie. And then two years later, in July 2009 when Sophie was two years old, I had Ruby – and within four months my life turned upside down. She was a beautiful, easy going text book baby, but at about nine weeks old something went off, like a light switch really. She went off feeding, she started going really rigid in the body and there was non-stop screaming. I was told it could be colic, or reflux, and we tried different medications. This all happened just after her 8 week vaccination, although no-one saw any correlation at the time. As the weeks went on she started having little eye rolls, and we went from the doctor to the paediatrician to the neurologist. The MRI’s started, the EEG’s started – and at first she was diagnosed with epilepsy. My world just fell apart – I felt like there was a huge hole and I had been sucked up into it. I didn’t know anyone who’d had epilepsy so I didn’t understand it, but I thought she could have medication and it would be manageable. We trialled medication but nothing worked – it would make her sleep but the seizures didn’t stop. She screamed for four years, 24/7. Non stop. There were times when Sophie who was so young would have her hands on her ears crying ‘mummy, please make it stop’. We would have been lucky to have two hours sleep a night. It was so hard for everyone around her because no-one could do anything to take Ruby’s pain away, and I would often find myself ending up in hospital with her, lying on a couch not knowing what to do. The nurses couldn’t do anything, the doctors couldn’t do anything and at that moment I made the decision – I had to have faith and just keep going. It would have been easier to just run away, to give up. I was asked to sign a ‘do not resuscitate’ form, but I couldn’t do it. I just didn’t want to see her in pain. She never really had a proper deep sleep, she was just knocked out from the medication. She’d still be grimacing from pain in her sleep. And I couldn’t sleep because I was conscious of her. I had extended my leave from work as I had no capacity to do anything other than care for my daughter. The months went on and we tried all sorts of medication until I saw a naturopath – and she was like an angel who’d been sent from heaven to help me. She said ‘its okay, we can do this’. And she gave me hope. She just talked to me and gave me advice – she’d seen the symptoms before. Gradually different connections came together from people who were on the same path and were really supportive. Ruby was diagnosed with cerebral palsy symptoms but nothing was showing up on the MRI – there’s no damage. When they’re in the womb or after being born they usually show signs, but she was perfect to start with. There were no signs at all there was anything going on before that eight/nine week period. The girls’ father and I are not together anymore but we were together for 13 years and separated around three years ago. I live on my own with my daughters but I do have a new partner now and he’s really understanding of Ruby’s needs and my commitments.
Ruby’s now six, and we have seen improvements over the last few years. The screaming stopped on the 28th of May 2013, just like a flash, and we still don’t know why the pain stopped. She’s now more aware of her surroundings. When I walk into her room in the morning and she’s just lying there, she hears my voice saying ‘hello Ruby’ and she has a huge smile. While she doesn’t make eye contact she knows that you’re there. She adores her sister and knows when she’s around. They’re beautiful together and Sophie’s really protective. We did an interview a few months ago, and they asked Sophie if she had three wishes for Ruby what would they be? Sophie said, “for Ruby to walk, for Ruby to talk and for her not to have her tummy feeding tube”. They also asked Sophie what the difference was between her and Ruby, and she said “Ruby wears flexible glasses and I wear normal glasses, and Ruby wears a nappy and I don’t, and Ruby has that tummy thing and I don’t.” She sees the differences that are in front of her, but that’s all. That’s what I love and that’s what I teach, and that’s why I established Ruby & Ollie’s – so that siblings can be together and can learn and grow together. You often find that children who haven’t been around other children with extra needs, are just curious. They go up and stare because they’re curious, they’re just children. But you’ll see a parent ushering them away because they don’t want to offend. We’re very passionate that we need to teach from that young level that these children are going to grow up normally and that there’s no stigma associated. People just want to be kind, and we get that people don’t want to stare in case they’re being rude. But we want people to ask questions, to acknowledge them and talk to them. Everyone, regardless of their ability, can get on together.
I was looking after Ruby full time. She was in a lot of pain but I did need some time out. When I looked around there was nothing. I did try a day care centre where I could put her in for a few hours a day but it just wasn’t enough. And there wasn’t enough knowledge or resources to meet her needs. There was a respite programme for siblings where I could drop Sophie and Ruby off together on a Tuesday afternoon and that was amazing – but that stopped because the funding no longer covered the child without the disability. What I wanted, and what a lot of parents in similar situations wanted, was somewhere where the siblings could be together. Purely from the frustration of not having anything like this available, I started Hummingbirds Early Intervention and Education Service in February 2013. I was at a local special school with Ruby, just talking to one of the teachers who could see that need as well, so we started to look at what we could do. I was living with my parents after my marriage broke down, but I needed to get out on my own. Everything fell into place and I found a home where I could live upstairs with the girls and we could run a family day care service from downstairs. It all happened really quickly – I met with a local family day care provider and talked about what we wanted to do and they were so supportive of it. Over the next 18 months we helped 16 families, and one of the mothers was Leah who is now my business partner in Ruby & Ollie’s. She travelled over an hour to Hummingbirds because of what we were providing, bringing her little boy Ollie – and after a few months our relationship grew and she could see the need for growing what we had. We talked over coffee and it just grew from there. We were both passionate about the service and decided to move forward together. She had been on the path to doing something similar but could see that what I’d been building was a great platform.
In late 2014 Leah and I decided to make a fresh start. We wanted to leave a legacy for our children – and so Ruby & Ollie’s was born. It’s fresh and modern, and kids can say that they’re going to play at Ruby & Ollie’s and it’s like they’re going to hang out with their friends. Our aim is to have a centre that offers a holistic approach to education and care for children under school age and for children of all abilities. Siblings can come together and we have visiting consulting therapists – so it’s a one-stop shop where parents can come and leave their child/children, and they can get therapy, socialisation and education. It’s all about children learning at a pace that’s natural for them. It’s encouraging them to feel safe, to feel listened to, to be heard. We have one large centre but we are looking to open smaller centres to meet the needs of families all around Brisbane.
At the same time as we had planned to close Hummingbirds to make way for Ruby & Ollie’s, the children we had been working with were moving onto school, so it all happened at the right time. I moved house as the stairs were getting too much for me to carry Ruby. She had hip surgery last year with both legs in plaster – her hips were dislocated and she will most likely have to have it done again. Then a few months later she broke her femur so she had another cast on. When you’re not doing much standing or weight-bearing you get brittle bones, so the littlest thing like getting her leg caught or having a spasm can result in broken bones.
As a mum, having two children and running a business has its challenges. I’ve always been a good multi-tasker. I have lots of to do lists. I do put pressure on myself to spend more time with the kids, but at the end of the day I’ve been Ruby’s full time carer for six years. I work at night when the girls have gone to bed – I’m a night owl so I love working at night. I’m currently studying as well, training as a professional life coach so I can help parents and care givers who have a child with a disability. So they can move forward and not dwell on their circumstances. A lot of parents do reach a stage where they just get it, they accept it, and they just want to get their life balance back.
Sometimes it still doesn’t register that I have my own business, it’s such a natural thing for me. I feel so fulfilled in what I’m doing that it doesn’t feel like work or a business. I’m writing a book and I write a blog, about the journey of Ruby. And realising there’s a Ruby is everything. No matter how hard things can get and how down you feel, if you look for even the smallest thing, there’s always a hidden gem somewhere that you can choose to just grab and go with and see the beauty in it.
The Shark Tank experience was amazing. It came at a time when we were banging our heads against brick walls trying to get funding and recognition in the local community, working through the policies that just didn’t work for what we wanted to do. I was exhausted, and then I saw an ad flash up on the TV – ‘Are you looking for funding?’ It was in August 2014 and I sent the link to Leah – she still has that email actually. We just did it – we had a reminder about the closing date and sent in the submission on the Friday and then on the Monday we had a call from them saying that they loved our story. It rolled on from there and it was kind of surreal at the time. We had a few months to prepare ourselves for the show which we filmed in early December 2014 and then it aired in March of this year. It was a daunting lead up but on the day everything just happened so quickly, and we were so used to telling our story that it just came naturally. I didn’t even see the cameras, I just saw the chance to tell our story to five amazing people. We had two Sharks invest with us, Steve Baxter and John McGrath who have both been a fantastic support – they are great mentors and we’re learning so much from them. They’re both involved with the business, and it was definitely a life changing moment because of the exposure. We’ve had so much support from families – offers to help, offers to donate things – it was really overwhelming. At first we thought, ‘what have we done and how are we going to manage this?’ We literally needed a PA just to manage the emails and it happened overnight. We had also been on The Project where they told our story, so we had to wade through the emails and work out who was genuine and who was not. We just want to do something constructive and real and move ahead.
Ruby and Ollie’s will grow and you’ll see them all over Queensland. Working with Leah has been amazing. We balance each other very, very well. We have exactly the same passion to make this work and we know the need for it – but we both have very different traits. Leah’s a great friend, a great support and really understanding, and she has a really great business sense whereas I’m more of a people person. I just want to work with the families, so having someone like Leah with a business sense is perfect. We believe each child who is challenged with a disability is just trapped in their body, and we will do all we can to help them come out of their shell.
Watch Rebecca and Leah on their winning episode of the Shark Tank here – so gutsy, and so inspiring.
Rebecca and Leah were recently guest speakers at the prestigious TEDxQUT event, and Rebecca is in the process of finalising her first book, Realising Ruby. Rebecca is also a 2015 Queensland Finalist in the Telstra Business Women’s Awards – the State and Territory winners will be flow to Melbourne on Monday 16 November for the national judging. We’ll let you know how she goes!
Stay tuned for Week 23 – when we will share Part II of Ruby and Ollie’s story, with Leah James.
Irrespective of a child’s developmental requirements, at Ruby & Ollie’s they welcome all children. They offer care that encompasses a holistic approach to the child and families vision, in an educational, therapeutic, social and nurturing environment.
Ollie’s All Abilities Childcare stems from the hearts of two passionate women. At Ruby & Ollie’s we celebrate the enjoyment of life and lightness of being. We believe and stand by our vision that children are all unique and we will work with each child to encourage them to reach their full potential… and then aim for the stars.
Copy: Melanie Quirk Photography: SomedaySomehowStudios
To find out how you can get get your business started and become the next Business Mama head to www.businessmamas.com.au