Improving the world for people with disabilities

NICOLA BRENNAN-TUPARA
Last updated 05:00 20/08/2012
MAKING A DIFFERENCE: Helen Greene visits and offers help to some of the poorest regions of the world
MAKING A DIFFERENCE: Helen Greene visits and offers help to some of the poorest regions of the world.

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It's the first thing you see as you walk through the door. A massive painting, some 2 metres long, hanging in pride of place in Helen Greene's Hamilton home.

It's a scene from Africa, one of the many countries she's travelled to through her aid work.

School children play, others get water from a well. A serene scene of the hopes and dreams of a child. The brush strokes soothing and, at a glance, uplifting.

"He was a child soldier, the boy who painted that, from age 9 to 14. That's five years with a gun in hand and enough cocaine to kill you," she tells the Times.

The Congolese teen painted it as part of his rehabilitation. Mrs Greene met him while chief executive of World Vision from 2000 to 2006.

"That's a kid who spent five years killing people - and that there are his hopes for the future. I think that's remarkable."

Even more remarkable to Mrs Greene is what she does for a living.

As chairwoman of cbm New Zealand - an organisation dedicated to helping children with disabilities in developing countries - and a board member of the international arm, she spends 30 per cent of her year overseas in some of the poorest, most difficult, regions of the world.

This year alone she's been to Germany - for a board meeting - India, Africa and this month Haiti.

"My husband [Peter] has got pretty used to taking me to the airport.

"He is truly amazing and so supportive. I wouldn't put up with what he puts up with. I'm always so tired when I get back."

She left World Vision because it took her overseas even more often than that.

"At least when I'm home now, I'm home."

It's not a job Mrs Greene thought she'd ever be doing - especially at 62.

A trained nurse, she went into a job as national manager of Disability Support Link in New Zealand to avoid redundancy.

"But once I was there I loved it. There's something about the courage and tenacity of people with a disability, and their ability to overcome pretty remarkable odds in so many cases - that's what inspired me and it still does."

At 50 she applied for, and got, the World Vision job.

"I'd always been interested in working with the poor, but never had the chance. My husband and I tried to go to Afghanistan years and years ago before we had kids, then the Russians invaded and the borders were closed, so we couldn't do that."

They went on to have a family - two girls - and Mrs Greene thought she'd missed her chance.

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"I remember when I turned 50 I thought ‘the dream is over. It's never going to happen now'.

"Then someone told me a job had come up with World Vision."

With a background in disability work, Mrs Greene has tried ever since to improve the world for people living with disabilities.

"I'm the most ordinary person and I've had the most extraordinary opportunities. I believe that every ordinary, average person has the ability to find things that can take them out of the ordinary - no matter what your age.

"I'm doing things I would have never dreamed of doing when I was 30 or 40, so age isn't a barrier.

"You just have to go for it - have the courage to do that."

She recently returned from northern India where she visited an organic farming project supported by the Ministry of Primary Industries and Purvanchal Gramin Seva Samiti (PGSS).

While there she met local aid workers, funded by New Zealand donations, helping to mobilise and educate farmers who have been cut off from their communities or unable to provide for their families due to their disability.

She gets a little emotional talking about one woman she met there who was making compost. She had a badly deformed arm.

"I asked her ‘what does this mean to you?'. She told me ‘the most important thing to me is that my children acknowledge me now' and her husband now talks to her because she's got something to talk about.

"It's altered her life beyond comprehension and all she's done is learn to make compost."

Those moments made all the time spent away from New Zealand worth it.

"I've always been passionate about working with poverty and making a difference, but with disability it is so much further down the poverty line.

"These people are so marginalised and so excluded, that any progress is huge. I get a real buzz with even the littlest steps."

Her house is covered in gifts she's received from her travels - including a set of coasters from one of her trips to Gaza to work with the deaf.

"That was profoundly impacting. I loved Gaza . . . They have that courage to face the unfaceable and have hope - that just staggers me."

Mrs Greene admits it's "really hard" coming home to Hamilton and trying to explain the extremes she's seen.

"Where I go and what I see is so different to what everyone else sees - even people who travel and say they've seen poverty.

"Yes I've travelled and I've seen poverty too, but there's something about working with it, sitting with the people and hearing their stories, sharing their lives for a little bit.

"It's hard for other people to get a grasp of what a struggle survival is. Even the poorest of us in New Zealand have so much . . . I know people will object to me saying that - but it's hard to translate that back, that degree of poverty."

- © Fairfax NZ News

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