Spreading the love to vulnerable families

Laura Rowan with children Mim, Rod, Harry and Lucy. Pictures: Louisa Jones

By Angie Hilton

Mother Teresa has a quote “spread love everywhere you go, let no one ever come to you without leaving happier”.

I feel like this sums up Laura Rowan. She’s one of those people that you walk away from feeling better about yourself. And it’s such a subtle thing – she’s unassuming, gentle and quiet, but just emanates warmth, love and compassion.

A mother of four, Laura juggles the daily routines of her little ones whilst also running her online skincare business Kokomo and, in between, finds time each week to volunteer at St Vincent de Paul with her husband Marty where they deliver food and offer support to the families of Geelong who are really struggling.

Together they are about to launch a new charity called Bayleaf Community Kitchen that will provide free drive through, healthy, home cooked meals to families who are falling on hard times.

The joy that fills their house seems to come from their priorities: family first, fill the house with love and help anyone in need.

I was fascinated to know more about this loving family.

How did you and Marty meet?

So romantic … at the Barking Dog!

Marty’s story is that he was about to leave when he saw me across the bar and decided to stay. I was there with my best friend at the time and his game plan was to approach her to gain some info about me first.

After a chat she came to me and said, ‘I met the man you’re going to marry. He loves trees and drinks milk at the bar’. Now as strange as that sounds, I kind of believed her as she knew me so well – even knew my quirky prerequisites of milk and trees.

When the two of us were introduced my first question was: ‘so what’s your last name?’ I had to ‘try it on’ if I was going to marry this guy (laughs).

Four kids equals four labours. Tell me, does it get easier the more you have?

Ummmm … definitely not.

Rod was 30 hours of exhaustion.

Lucy was slightly more bearable but I had the anxiety build up from the first marathon.

Henry was overdue by a week and then, as they induced me, they discovered he was posterior (lucky my obstetrician turned him rather than have a caesar).

And with Mim my biggest fear came to life when the epidural went wrong and I had what they call a ‘wet tap’. I won’t go into it as I don’t want to scare new mums. Let’s just say it’s rare but painful.

Four kids is considered a big family these days. Was that what you always dreamt of?

Well Marty is one of nine (a good Catholic family) and I am one of three. After meeting Marty and spending time with his huge family, I got to witness the joy.

That whole concept of it taking a village to raise a child really comes into play. Everyone chips in and supports each other, there is always someone to help out with the kids, always a shoulder to cry on, always a lot of laughs … and a lot of food.

Originally we were aiming to have six kids, but four is feeling pretty comfortable right now (laughs) … although you never know.

Any memorable funny parenting moments?

I distinctly remember literally being in the birthing suite having our fourth child and hearing Marty on the phone in the background negotiating payment details. I thought to myself ‘what could be so important that he has to do this while I’m in labour?’ When he returned from the phone call I impatiently asked ‘what the heck were you buying at a time like this?’ He responded with ‘I need to seal the deal on a vehicle we can all fit in’. The reality that we were going to be a six member family must have hit hard in the room that day. I still laugh to myself, wondering why we left it to the last minute. I guess we were just busy.

What does a day in the life of the Rowans look like?

Pretty chaotic to be honest. Breakfast always goes longer than it should, mainly because our 6-year-old son has three sittings – we call him hungry Henry.

I wish I was more organised the night before, but school and kinder lunches are always madly packed each morning.

Somehow we always make it out the door in time for the kids to get to school early.

After a good coffee and a quick walk in nature to clear my head, I then try to fit in as much work as I can before school pick-up. After school we have extra curricular activities every night. Has anyone ever mastered the balance of community engagement and sanity at home?

It helps that we have a ritual of ‘Friday fun night’ that we all look forward to. We get take out, watch a family movie together.

I love how in your ‘spare time’ of being a mother of four kids, you whip up a whole range of raw, organic skincare products from scratch. What was the motivation behind that? They look, feel and smell divine. And I love how the name ‘kokomo’ transports you straight to the set of Cocktail with Tom Cruise.

Ha ha! Yes, the song was my childhood ‘happy song’. When creating the brand I really wanted a fresh tropical look and feel that encapsulated my love of the beach.

KO.KO.MO started out of my pure frustration of having skin that reacted to everything.

I started researching skin care products and discovered that even the so called ‘natural’ options still had hidden nasties.

I made it my mission then to find the best natural, active ingredients from the ocean and earth. Oils, clays, fruits and plants, I experimented with them all until I found the perfect blend that finally soothed and hydrated my skin.

My biggest joy is when customers tell me that they too have been on the same skin journey and that my products are working for them.

Is it hard to balance your work and family life?

I wanted to have a business that allowed me to have a day off if I was needed as a mum. Work is important, but not as important as family. The values of motherhood – love, sacrifice and compassion – may not have a monetary value attached but they are the absolute cornerstone of life.

I also love that I can make all the products from home. The kids enjoy watching me make the products and they want to be part of it. I often just let them make up their own separate concoctions for fun. The kids and I often do face masks for a bit of fun.

It is so admirable the way you and Marty serve the community. Most of us bury our heads in the sand and hope that someone else is doing something about it. But you and Marty are actually confronting these hard situations. What inspires you?

I once heard someone say, ‘we can’t do everything, but we can all do something’.

Working for Vinnies has been such an eye-opener. It breaks our hearts to know that right on our doorstep there are a ridiculous amount of families living in horrendous conditions. It would be much easier to bury our heads in the sand, but once you have been exposed to the reality you can’t turn away from it.

Marty volunteers around 20 hours a week serving as the president of the Geelong conference for St Vincent de Paul (on top of his job of running a horse agistment farm in Camperdown). I help by delivering groceries and food vouchers to homes once a week.

I love that Vinnies gives us the opportunity to really make a difference. It is often a last resort call for people when they are at the point of desperation. We are lucky enough to have funds to step in and pay someone’s medical bill or rent or whatever they need when they have no one to turn to.

I would strongly encourage others to try volunteering. The ironic thing about it is that the volunteer often ends up getting just as much out of the transaction as the person receiving.

Was it through your Vinnies work that you saw a need for nutritious meals to be provided to these families. Is that the plan with your new charity Bayleaf Community Kitchen?

Absolutely. In the homes we visit we would see so many young children who were not being fed nutritious meals. Marty had a brilliant idea to provide free home cooked healthy drive-through meals. The drive-through factor allows the recipient to feel more anonymous when shame keeps many people from asking for help.

The aim is to encourage families to share a meal together in their home encouraging conversation, family values and love.

Bay Leaf hopes to lift families out of their dire situations by showing them that the community loves and supports them and inspires these families to make healthy life choices.

I notice you and Marty are not on social media (aside from K.Ko.Mo). What are your thoughts on it?

I feel like I am happiest when my life is simple. I’ve ditched the complexities of social media to focus on my relationships and being present in the reality of day to day living.

Our TV broke two years ago and, as an experiment, we decided to have some time without getting it replaced. It was difficult at first, but over time it paid off and the family became much closer.

We also decided to dramatically limit our kids use of screens and, even though there was an initial bad reaction, what unfolded was fantastic. They were getting outdoors, playing together and meeting other kids in the street. Just like the good old days.

Your children seem to be so joyful and get along so well. Do you have a parenting philosophy?

We’ve always believed that if a child is loved they will reach their full potential. As parents we all make mistakes, but I truly believe if you love your children unconditionally, it gives them a great sense of self worth, self love and confidence to move through life knowing they are supported.

We try to instil kindness in their behaviour. It hasn’t always been the case, but for example when they are down to the last lolly, rather than all dive in to grab it, they decide who amongst them deserves it the most ‘you have it, no you have it’.

*What did you love about your own parents’ parenting?

My parents always supported me in anything I wanted to do.

My mum always went above and beyond to make sure I always had the resources required to carry out my crazy creative ambitions.

I feel really blessed to have such a special relationship with my dad. He would always take me camping so we spent a lot of quality time together. He has such depth and wisdom that he has always shared with me.

I think it’s so romantic that before he met mum he was an Anglican monk in England for two years. However, he met mum and was so besotted that he hung up the robe … fortunately so, or I wouldn’t be here to tell the tale (laughs).

Check out www.kokomoskincare.com.au
Donate to Bay Leaf Community Kitchen www.bayleafkitchen.com.au
Or to enquire about volunteering for St Vincent de Paul contact Marty at martinrowan23@gmail.com