Meet The Dropouts: Chris And Jill’s Mob
Meet Chris, a thirty-something rat race dropout who’s traveling around Asia with his wife and their five kids.
These dropout parents are amazing for more than just traveling with a horde of children. Chris and Jill’s eldest, Sparky, is profoundly disabled with cerebral palsy. Sparky spends most of her time in her wheelchair, which is really a modified bicycle trailer, and she needs to be fed pureed food through a feeding tube that goes straight into her stomach.
Sparky, Tintin and Meanabadeena, who are all nine years old, are three surviving quadruplets. The “mob” is rounded out with two more boys: Snowy, who’s five; and Baby Boy who’s now 14 months.*
I met Chris and Jill, who trained as a social worker, in Chiang Mai and was just gobsmacked at how easy they made things look. Their kids got along well together, the parents were calm and funny and Sparky was so patient, with a wicked twinkle in her eye.
Because Chris and Jill make things seem so effortless, some of their offhand comments would take me by surprise, giving me a glimpse of the enormity of the challenge they face as parents of a profoundly disabled child. It was just little things, like Jill saying over lunch that she needed to stay strong so she could always lift Sparky, and Chris saying in this interview that now was a good time for them to travel because Sparky was pain-free.
Chris and Jill and their mob have been on the road for six months now. This month they head off to China and right at the moment they’re not sure how long they’re traveling for.
They travel light, although they do have to pack a few extra things for Sparky. Every day, Sparky’s food (the same stuff the rest of the family eats) is zapped into mush in a rechargeable blender and put into containers in a small insulated bag. Four times a day, the mush is injected into her stomach, along with some water. The mush injector-syringes are washed up every night – no need for sterilising – and Sparky hasn’t gotten sicker than anyone else in the family since they’ve been traveling.
But Chris tells his story better than me. Here it is in his own words.
In 100 words or less – what’s your story?
I grew up in Perth and learned much at my fancy school but little of the ‘real world’. I got a good job after my first degree (a Bachelor of Science majoring in metallurgy) and it was all going to plan.
I first dropped out at 25; left my high-paying mining job with my backpack for 12 months. I learned more of the ‘real world’ met my lovely wife Jill and become a high school teacher (after doing a Diploma of Education), which I enjoyed until we had quadruplets. Having quads may sound like fun but it wasn’t all beer and skittles.
I dropped out again following a redundancy in 2008, and we spent nine months driving around Australia. Fantastic!
We now have five children and our eldest has profound cerebral palsy and gets about in our home-grown travel wheelchair.
How did you become a high school teacher?
During my first drop out I visited a community of alternative livers (hippies) in eastern Canada. I was embarrassed to tell them I was a metallurgist, so I only told a couple of girls. One of them, a girl called Nancy, told me that I’d be a good teacher – so on return to Australia I enrolled in Graduate Diploma of Education (Secondary School Science). I completed this Dip Ed while flying in and out of West Australian gold mines.
(Editor’s note: Chris also told me he did his MBA just after the quads were born. And no, he doesn’t actually seem crazy when you meet him.)
Where are you now?
I am sitting back on the porch of our homestay in Bali overlooking a terraced rice field. Sparky is lying on the couch with me, and I’m listening to all the birds singing in their cages, hanging along the eaves. Baby Boy is playing hockey with a stick and some granite stones on the slippery tiles. He’s had enough of his only toy!
Where are you going next?
Beijing. The choice was India or China. We chose China because India is too hot this time of year. Jill is desperate to introduce us to India, where she travelled as a teenager. But this will have to wait ’til the cooler season.
How did you decide to drop out? And what did your dropping out entail?
While we’re practiced dropouts and we’d been scheming our next dropout for a year or so, it was Jill’s persuasive ways that motivated this big dropout.
This dropout entailed me leaving a perfectly good high paying mining job (again) and heaps of planning. We needed a kick-ass travel wheelchair and an effective way to feed Sparky blenderised food on the road. It took two months from deciding to leave to boarding the plane and we were exhausted.
Have you got an option to drop back in, and is it likely that you will actually drop back in at some point?
The door is open for me to return to a comfortable mining job. I will only return if we agree it is in the family’s best interests. At this stage, I’m pleased (and a little surprised) to say it is in our family’s best interests to continue traveling.
How are you funding your travels?
Savings and a fledgling e-business.
Do you have a monthly budget? What is it and are you sticking to it?
Our target budget was $100/day during our time in SE Asia and we’re not too far over at about $125/day all inclusive. We have some therapy and medical expenses above and beyond the norm.
How long are you planning to travel and what will you do once you’ve run out of money?
While we left Australia expecting to travel for one year, we’re open to considering further travel if we continue to all get a lot out of it. I’m working on starting a remote technical writing business, which may become important to sustain longer travel. I’m not afraid to return to Perth several years from now with no equity, but if I can sustain our travels by writing a few hours a week – great!
What was the biggest challenge you faced after you reached the decision that you wanted to take your family traveling? Or was the biggest challenge actually deciding that you wanted to do it?
This may sound strange but my biggest personal challenge was leaving the comfort and security of work. I was partly defined by my work and the prospect of erasing this part of my identity (again) comes with a little anxiety.
Once I’d given notice and we’d booked flights, the logistics were easy with the exception of Sparky’s wheelchair.
Were the kids/parents/family on board from the start?
Everyone is supportive. Our kids love traveling and the idea of road-schooling. Our parents are travelers and appreciate the value of traveling. Jill’s Mum has come to visit twice already!
How did you and Jill meet? (Give me the five Ws and the H!)
Jill and I met at a Scripture Union family beach mission at Augusta, Western Australia. Jill was the cook and I was a hungry volunteer.
We first held hands on the last day of 1999.
Why? She was pretty, bright, compassionate and eloquent.
How? Jill told me to stop hanging around the kitchen. The following discussion revealed that she thought I was nice and didn’t want to be distracted. We were engaged within four months and married in nine.
Tell me a bit more about Sparky.
Sparky is beautiful, sensitive, clever and has a quirky sense of humour. She has profound cerebral palsy which means she uses a wheelchair, talks with us using an alternative communication device and eats through a PEG directly into her stomach.
She enjoys the adventure of travel; the sights, sounds, smells and tastes. Her favourite thing about travel is meeting new people. Language is less of a barrier for Sparky than the rest of us, and she is frequently the focus of attention as we stroll through a market or into a fishing village. Some people start massaging her arms, others pray for her and some even bring back gifts of food or ancient writings.
Sparky’s enjoyment of travel is not without challenges. We require regular power to recharge Sparky’s cordless blender that we use to prepare her meals and Sparky gets hot in Southeast Asia so we typically choose rooms with air-conditioning.
Any advice for other parents considering extended world travel with their kids?
Read family travel blogs. Their stories are real and a rich source of practical ideas and inspiration. Don’t fret about missing school, you’ll be amazed by the great learning you and your kids do when travelling. I think road-schooling is fun and there’s plenty of advice in family travel blogs.
And what would you tell parents of disabled kids who would like to travel?
Extended travel with a child with a profound physical disability is hard work, but you know that. Extended world travel is not for everyone, but if it is for you, do it soon. Our beautiful daughter Sparky is currently pain free and weighs 20kg; great ingredients for travel. It is likely that Sparky’s health, comfort and weight will change in time, making extended travel impossible. So we do it now. Again, if travel is for you, start planning and go well.
*Chris and Jill use pseudonyms for their kids. Just in case you were wondering.
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319 days ago