Wellington's local heroes

Ordinary people who do extraordinary things

Last updated 11:59 09/02/2013

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They're the ordinary people who do extraordinary things. As part of the Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year Awards, 180 Kiwis have received the Local Hero medal, and a national winner will be announced on February 28. We talk to some of the recipients about what they do and why they do it.

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Richard Hawke was a cub Scout as a child, and "never really left". In 1998 the Karori resident became a Scout leader at the same hall he went to as a child.

The public servant's first reaction to discovering he had won the Local Hero medal was disbelief. "It was similar to when I see one of those Reader's Digest [sweepstakes announcements] - this is not real. I was surprised. I don't do it at all for the recognition."

Dr Hawke and his wife, Carol Willson, organise Scout meetings and outdoor activities in the evenings, weekends and school holidays for 10 to 18-year-olds, spending up to 60 nights a year away from home with their troop.

They also give many hours to support Scouts undertaking the Duke of Edinburgh's Hillary self-development programme.

"While the award is to me, it's actually very much to the two of us. It wouldn't happen without her."

In some ways, Dr Hawke sees his work as simply repaying the work done by his Scout leaders. "Somebody did it for me. I spend a lot of time tramping and in the outdoors, and I wouldn't have done it if someone hadn't done that for me," the 44-year-old says.

"I've actually been doing it long enough that I've seen kids move from Scouts through to going to university and doing other things.

"So it's about providing people the opportunity to do things they wouldn't otherwise be able to do and develop as young leaders."

He plans to continue as long as the kids are having fun. "Even now, going tramping, I can still keep up with the 17 and 18-year-old boys at the end of the day."

Nominated by: Rebecca Flowerday, mother of 16-year-old Scout Rory Flowerday-Horne

"[The parents of the Scout troop] are really thankful having something like this to show our thanks. It was pure Kiwi spirit - that is exactly what we see from Richard. He's taking quite average New Zealand kids and turning them into exceptional young adults."

VOLUNTEER VETERANS

Avalon residents Betty and Peter Hodgins have volunteered in their local community for more than 30 years.

But when they were awarded their Local Hero medals last month, in recognition of their long-time contribution, they played it down. "We don't like to be in the limelight," Mrs Hodgins, 80, says.

She started giving her time to the Meals on Wheels programme after her children had grown up, with her husband joining her once he retired - and now do it every Friday.

The couple have spent more than 20 years helping at the Lower Hutt food bank, and have assisted with the Kickstart breakfast programme at the decile one St Michael's School in Lower Hutt since it began a year ago.

Mrs Hodgins says the work is rewarding, but she also receives benefits out of it, including great friendships.

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The Hodgins were a little taken aback by the award, wondering who nominated them, Mr Hodgins, 86, says. "It was unbelievable. We found out later on . . . our granddaughter put us forward."

The couple remain very busy - their weekly fitness classes, love of gardening and the birth of their first great-grandchild keep their schedule full.

But they also remain deeply committed to keeping up their volunteer work. "As long as I can drive, we'll be doing meals on wheels," Mr Hodgins says.

Nominated by: Michelle McCarthy, granddaughter, Tauranga

"In the past, whenever teachers asked, 'Who are your role models?', I always ended up coming back to my grandparents. Every day they're waking up to help out with the community or do some initiative."

RETURN OF THE NATIVE

Gay rights activist and environmentalist Des Smith believes a good life is defined by two things - having fun, and leaving the world a better place.

The Ngaio resident has been a passionate supporter of the Karori wildlife sanctuary from its early days in the late 1990s, donating the funds for two posts in the pest- proof fence, and later becoming a volunteer visitor guide.

In 2002, he took this experience to an environmental project closer to home: the native bush restoration of Bell's Track in Ngaio Gorge, which he has run for the past few years.

"Right from a kid I've been keen on native plants - I was planting native plants when it was frowned on," the 72-year-old says.

"I don't think ever, in the evolution of humans, has it been more important for us to be more aware and in touch with the earth."

Mr Smith's proudest achievement is the founding of the Gay & Lesbian Fair in 1986, the longest-running event of its sort in the country.

At that time, he was also heavily involved in the 1985 campaign for homosexual law reform. Campaigning again for the civil union bill in 2004, Mr Smith and his partner, John Jolliff, became the first couple in New Zealand to have a civil union.

When he heard he had been nominated - twice, in fact - he was slightly stunned, though very moved.

"I feel very honoured to be nominated. For the gay community, it is important that someone stands up and is recognised.

"I only hope another generation benefits from all this."

Nominated by: Pam Fuller, Zealandia trustee and former guide and host convener

"I had actually received a Local Heroes award two years ago. One of the other guides said . . . what [Des] was doing [at Bell's Track] is absolutely terrific, the guy deserves a medal - and it just sort of rang a bell for me. When you're going to nominate someone, it's about the length, breadth and depth of what they do. He's done 10 years, and if he's free, he's always up to do something extra."

ANIMAL RESCUER

A lifelong love and respect of animals and a natural problem- solving ability led Carolyn Press- McKenzie to found the charity Helping You Help Animals.

Through Huha, she manages two animal shelters for domestic, exotic and native species that were abused, neglected or injured. "Any animal that's in a pickle, we whip in," she says.

After the Christchurch earthquake, Mrs Press-McKenzie and her volunteer team supported the overwhelmed Cantabrian animal shelters and rehomed 180 animals, an initiative Huha is still assisting with.

"A lot of people had their lives tipped upside down so severely, for them the best option was to sign their animals over.

"It was a really, really devastating, distressing and very highly emotional time, but every single animal that came up got a fantastic home."

The work certainly keeps her busy - as well as launching several business ventures, Mrs Press-McKenzie also recently started a new programme to help at-risk youths through working with animals at the sanctuaries.

"It's a bit like the Lady Gaga song Born This Way, I think - I couldn't slow down if I tried."

One of the most rewarding things from her work is the growing community support for the shelters, she says. "I'm loving the fact that [the community is] following the stories of these animals and they're being educated by them. I think a lot of what we do is lead by example."

The Local Hero medal is actually her second.

"I didn't know if it was a mistake or not," she says.

"But I was absolutely thrilled - and I was thrilled for my team as well."

She feels honoured to be in the company of the other recipients. "They're just such amazing people, so to be popped in a barrel with them is something to be very proud of."

Nominated by: Vari Nicholson, Huha volunteer

"She works tirelessly - she receives probably four or five calls a day from people wanting her to come and pick up animals - just the way her mind works, she finds alternative ways of helping people. If there are animals that need her help, she just drops everything."

KEEP ON RUNNING

A father's pledge to be involved with his children's sports led to Willy Szeto's 16-year volunteer stint in athletics.

The 50-year-old has been involved in athletics since his school days - in sprinting, relay, and long jump. "My mum and dad owned a restaurant, which in those days was a seven days a week, 364 days a year sort of thing, so they never, ever saw me running.

"I made a promise to myself and my wife that we'd support our kids and go and watch them doing their sports, so when my eldest boy started to do athletics, I jumped in as well."

The Karori resident began coaching children, including son Matt and now 13-year-old daughter Caitlin, up to secondary school-age at the local athletics club in 1998.

That same year he joined the Karori club's management committee and the Athletics Wellington junior committee.

"It's just great watching the kids improve, and then their confidence improves too as they get better at sports."

Nine years ago, Mr Szeto started officiating at athletics events, at local, regional and national meets, and on top, training up new officials - tasks that take up many of his days off.

Yet, despite this substantial commitment, he is slightly embarrassed at his selection as a Local Hero medal recipient. "When they did the presentations, some of the stuff [the recipients did] was pretty world-changing and life-changing for a lot of people, whereas mine was just for helping out with athletics."

Though he appreciates the recognition, Mr Szeto prefers to dedicate the award to his wife, Karen.

"For her patience and understanding - because I'm never home."

Nominated by: Mark Watson, Sport Wellington

"Sport as we know it today relies on volunteers, and it wouldn't happen without people like Willy. He volunteers across all the levels - the amount of hours that guy gives is unheard of.

"It's obviously more than a passion for him, I guess that's why he's so special."

CAMEO ROLE

Waikanae resident Alison Vautier has voluntarily, for the past 18 years, provided a drop-in centre for locals to enjoy some companionship.

Mrs Vautier, 74, received her Local Hero medal for almost 50 years of voluntary work for several organisations, including establishing the Cameo centre in Waikanae where locals could meet and attend outings together.

Moving from Wairarapa to Waikanae 20 years ago, she brought her 83-year-old mother to the village and noticed a need for somewhere for people to go to make new friends.

After setting up a Friends of the Hospital organisation in Wairarapa, she now has 55 volunteers, aged from the early 60s to 96, at "Come and Meet Each Other", who offer a cup of tea, coffee, biscuit and good chat at the popular Mahara Place drop-in centre.

It is open five days a week from 10am to 3pm and offers a JP service one day a week. "Even in the holidays we have a roster - holiday time is a very lonely time. A lot of people in Waikanae live alone. A lot tell me it is their second home," she says.

Mrs Vautier started doing volunteer work as a teenager and is a JP, marriage celebrant, former president of the local Probus Club and long-time member of the Women's Institute. "I do it because I love it."

Relying on donations to pay the rent for Cameo, they have never had to worry about finding the money. "We do fundraising, have wonderful volunteers and strong community support.

"It is nice to make people's lives a little bit happier."

Nominated by: Karen White, Mrs Vautier's daughter

"Throughout my life I've seen her helping people. She puts other people ahead of herself and recognises their needs. Behind her is my dad, supporting her."

THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX

For Neil Cadwallader, teaching kids boxing has always been about more than just putting them through their paces in the ring.

"Not only do we train the kids but we give them advice too, and help them with any problems they might have," says the retired Masterton man.

"So we provide much more for them, and we also pick them up and drop them off if they need it."

For 37 years he and his wife Janice have run the Masterton Young Citizens Club, a place where at-risk kids can go for fitness and boxing lessons, while also gaining belief in themselves, a purpose, and discipline.

"It changes people's lives around," Mr Cadwallader says. "I've seen people come and go and seen how it changes their lives for the better. And now we're seeing their kids coming along too."

Mr Cadwallader runs the boxing side of things - his father was an Australasian champion - while his wife "looks after the books" and runs tai chi and keep- fit programmes for older club members.

For Mr Cadwallader, the award is not his first. His national role as a tutor to boxing coaches has been recognised with the country's top boxing award, the Brian O'Brien trophy, and also by a commendation from the International Olympic Committee.

In 2002, he received a Civic Award from the Masterton District Council for his voluntary role. This was also recognised by Boxing NZ, which noted his role "extended well beyond boxing itself and into the general area of youth welfare and development".

Mr Cadwallader says he and his wife, who are now both in their 70s, hope to keep going as long as they can. "I can't do everything I'd like to do anymore, but I've got another coach helping out so hopefully we can keep it going."

Nominated by: Chris Peterson, Masterton district councillor

"They just quietly go on with it, they don't make a lot of song and dance about it. Their efforts are really very much appreciated by the kids and the families that they work with, and they always go that little bit extra."

DIFFERENT LOOK AT LIFE

When Napier man Jim Morunga was blinded, he vowed to be "the best blind person in the world".

Left blind by a serious eye injury during a rugby match at the age of just 22, he has not let it slow him down.

In fact, his steadfastness has inspired kapo (blind) and other disabled Maori who are challenged on a daily basis with society's misconceptions about their blindness and their disability.

Mr Morunga has worked with troubled youths, gangs and the blind, encouraging well-being in the community.

He said he was teaching people to "look at life a little differently".

Sometimes he uses his disability to inspire others.

He tells people: "If a blind man can chop a tree, then you bloody can too."

Mr Morunga helped develop, and presided over, Ngati Kapo O Aotearoa, which supports blind Maori.

He believed they were not being given a good deal.

They were not being invited to hui because whanau felt they had nothing to offer.

So Mr Morunga toured the country giving Maori "a good boot" to change their attitudes.

His work also includes increasing the use of guide dogs in the Maori and Pacific Islander communities from one in 1988 to 41 in 2003.

For the past two years, he has been co-ordinating the Kia Pikite Ora Suicide Prevention programme for Te Kupenga Hauora.

Suicide is a difficult topic for some people but Mr Morunga's message is: "He korero tatoumote whakapapa - have the conversation, talk about it and ensure you're connected to one another."

He says the award is not for him but for the whanau and community that have supported his work. "Anything is possible if you're given good will and support."

Nominated by: Chrissie Cowan, Ngati Kapo O Aotearoa executive officer

"Jim is an icon and role model revered for his achievements by Ngati Kapo members. Jim is a testimony to disabled persons that you do not have to fit the 'box' just because that is what able-bodied expect."

EASING THE END

Former Lake Taupo Hospice chairman David Maling is a reluctant hero.

The retired central Hawke's Bay farmer is a recipient of the Local Hero regional medal for his volunteer work with the hospice over 11 years, including eight years as chairman.

He retired earlier this year as the hospice trust's chairman but still maintains a volunteer role helping the organisation.

"I don't really feel the award is for me alone - it's for the hospice and all the staff and volunteers who help out generally," he says.

"The idea of having an award like this is excellent - it gives the community the ability to recognise the work done by the hospice. The award provides benefits for the hospice as well.

"It's been fascinating to be involved in the service."

Lake Taupo Hospice was started almost 26 years ago by a group of women who saw the need for 24-hour relief care for terminally ill patients.

Since Mr Maling has been involved, the small service has progressed to three full-time and three part-time professional palliative care nurses, and volunteer support.

"Most people really struggle to come to terms with dying, many want to die at home, though not everyone is able to. No-one really understands what is involved until the time comes."

The trained 24/7 nursing staff and the volunteer support work hand in hand. "The emphasis is providing for the patients' needs first."

Up to 170 community volunteers also help with patient needs to enable them to stay home.

Volunteers give hundreds of hours each month to help the service. Such needs as specialised equipment and beds, meals, hair care, trimming finger nails, or recording on tape an individual's life are met by volunteers.

Getting good people to help is never an issue, he says. "One of the highlights of working with the hospice is seeing the human spirit in action. It's a fun place to work - the staff are compassionate, and helpful for families in difficult times, and have a good sense of humour."

Nominated by: Alison Bowman, Lake Taupo Hospice manager of volunteer services

"David is one of those people who recognises a need and then finds a way. He has led us through some great changes - all on a volunteer basis. But David would say he receives the best payment, ensuring that the people in our community who need hospice care receive the best possible care."

Interviews: Olivia Wannan, Kay Blundell, Seamus Boyer, Tracey Chatterton, Mike Watson.

- The Dominion Post

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