For 30 years she worked in the Health system, initially as a nurse and then in management. In 2000, Helen was appointed CEO of World Vision NZ, the first woman to take leadership within the global organisation. Since leaving World Vision, Helen has undertaken roles in governance both in Aotearoa, New Zealand and internationally, and consults for health and disability work in developing countries. Helen and her husband Peter live in Raglan. They have two adult children and six grandchildren.
Tell me about where you were born, and your immediate family.
I was born and grew up in the Karangahake Gorge, in-between Paeroa and Waihi. It was an old mining town that had long since become almost a ghost town. I have two brothers—one older, one younger. My Dad was a linesman for the railway. He rode jiggers to work and back. We had a small plot of land with a cow and goat, hens, and a big garden. We lived by the river. It was magic. Absolutely magic growing up in the bush and the river and the hills, and the old mines to explore. Then my Dad was killed in a railway accident when I was 11. And Mum developed a psychiatric illness. So things went downhill from there.
Is there a sense in which your life is divided into before age 11 and after age 11?
It certainly was back then. It was pretty devastating. Mum’s illness was all-consuming, and living in a very small rural village there was no support, no access to services. No nothing. So it was pretty tough going. My schooling suffered. It was a difficult time. But you know, you get through, and I guess that’s the first experience of my life where things that have been really awful, and quite devastating, have turned out to be things that have enabled me to move forward. I learned how to care for a family. I learned how to cook, to sew, to manage, to organise. When I went nursing, those skills really pushed me ahead. So, what was really sad was actually a gain, if that makes sense.
I suppose it’s probably taken some time to come to those conclusions?
Yes, certainly. I was married and had children, and was reflecting back on my life, and I could see how things had happened that you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. But at the end of the day, they gave me a strength and determination that I wouldn’t otherwise have had.
Did you go to a small rural school to begin with?
Yes. All 12 of us! Right up until the end of Intermediate. We had the same teacher right through—Mr. Nash. I loved the man, he was a wonderful teacher, a wonderful person, and I think we got a good education. I went to high school in Paeroa. It seemed huge to us, but it was probably about 200 or 300 students.
What were your high school years like?
I struggled through high school—it was a terrible journey. I had very few friends. People are cruel about psychiatric illness. People try and take advantage of you. And it was a difficult journey.
There were a few people who really helped me at that time. One was a lady who lived in Karangahake, and she would help me with rides in and out to school rather than just catching the bus, so that I could have extra time with two of the teachers who were there. These teachers spent quite a bit of time with me, helping me to get through. They were wonderful. Great memories.
I was asked to go back and present the prize-giving speech at Paeroa College about five years ago. I talked about those teachers, and the wife of one of them was there—she’d retired, but it was lovely to meet her, and just say what it had meant to have her hubby in my life.
When you finished high school, what happened next for you?
I went nursing. Because of the teachers who really put energy into me, I managed to finally get my university entrance exam. I’d wanted to go nursing because I wanted to find help for Mum. So I went to Tauranga, because it was a single bus trip home. That was the main reason for nursing. But I loved it. It was a really good fit.
Even when you were doing your nursing training, were you still holding a very high level of responsibility for your Mum?
Yes, I was. Interestingly, my Mum developed gallbladder problems, and I fought to get her put into Tauranga hospital so that I could care for her at my flat after she got out. I was on night duty at the time on the orthopaedic ward, and I can still see this surgeon that operated on Mum coming down the corridor in the middle of the night to see me. And he said to me, I think your Mum’s had a reaction to the anaesthetic. She’s acting very strangely, and we are extremely concerned about her. I said, Well, what’s she doing? And he told me, and I said, It’s not an anaesthetic reaction. That’s her! He sort of did a double take and said, She lives like this? And I said Yes—I want to get help for her. He said, She can’t stay like this, Helen. He was a lovely Christian man, the surgeon, and he got Mum treated. It was truly amazing. She was put under psychiatric care immediately and did really quite well—with a lot of medications and quite a few visits. But she did well. At the end of her life, that was lovely to see. Really lovely.
Did that relieve some of your responsibility?
Oh, yes. They arranged for her to move from the Gorge to a state house in Tauranga, and there was Social Work Support for her. So that was huge. Really huge.
Did you grow up in a Christian family? Where was God in this first part of your life?
My mother was a born and bred Baptist. My father was a lapsed Catholic. We’d go to the local dances with Dad on a Saturday night, and then go to the Bible class on Sunday and hear about the evils of dancing! So it was a mixture of things. I grew up with a Christian faith, but it was more based around the fact that bad things can happen. And I didn’t want to go to hell, because life was pretty much like that, so I was erring on the side of caution and hanging on to the God story.
So quite fearful in many ways?
Yes, that’s right. Not a good way to live. But then, when I’d finished my training, I was caring for a young boy who was in a motorbike accident, and it was Christmas Eve. We were turning the machinery off that was keeping him alive. His parents were beautiful Christian people. In those days, family didn’t stay with the person while they died—you turned the machinery off, and they died, and then you asked the family to come in. I went out to get them and they were singing carols around the hospital. They were singing “Once in Royal David’s City”—“when our eyes at last will see him.” And they turned to me, and said to me, you know, one day we will see him. And already our son is seeing him, and his love will see us through. They talked about God’s love, about how God knew what was happening for them, and the pain, and that he would walk with them through the pain. I just thought, Wow, this is amazing. I want that! So that was really my turning point.
So that was your first really big-picture sense of a story of that was hopeful?
Yes. That God loves us. That bad things can be handled by God, and he can love us through them. It was very exciting, really. I thought, I really need to learn a lot more about this—a God of love, and everything! So I enrolled for Bible college, and I met my husband at the same time. We tried to juggle my Bible college year, and living in Hamilton, and him growing in his faith and all that. At the end of the year, I left Bible college, and we were married the following year.
I developed a real sense of mission at Bible college. We had missionary talks every Wednesday night, and I used to love those. I really loved them. And I half-pie thought, you know, maybe mission life? But then nothing worked out.
What really excited you about the mission evenings? It sounds like it really resonated.
Oh, I could see the passion of the people for a world that was lost. I felt a sense of reality, as they talked—they didn’t try to paint a rosy picture. They painted a picture of honest struggles and relationships and challenges and rewards that seemed very real and very, very compelling.
After you got married, where were you living?
In Hamilton. We were there for 45 years. During this time we had two daughters—the first one after seven years, and the next one quite quickly on her heels, after we’d given up hope altogether! I stayed at home for the first four years after our older daughter Kirsty was born, and Karen was nearly three when I went back to doing part-time afternoon shifts and night shifts. I would sleep in the day when they were at school and kindy. Pete’s mum lived in the house next door to us. We built a little unit in the front and she lived there. She was a great help with childminding and so on.
Tell me about your nursing work.
I spent around 20 years as a bedside nurse, working sometimes as a charge nurse, sometimes as a staff nurse in high dependency intensive care, emergency care, and cardiac care. All sorts of busy, high drama areas. That’s where I loved being. I thought I’d do that forever.
But you shifted into the disability sector?
Yes—this was another of those curveballs that God throws you into. I was asked if I would do duty managing, which was the afternoon management of the hospital, and I did that for two years. I was reporting to the General Manager of medicine, who asked me to do a policy on end-of-life procedures. I was taken out of the hospital into this management role, and I spent a year formulating all these policies.
When I finished the work, and wanted to return to nursing, they said, actually, with some hospital changes that have come with the new Government, you’re now registered as a manager, not a nurse. You can’t just go back—you would need to resign and be re-employed. Resignation would mean losing my long service leave, and all that sort of thing. They said, apply for another job—if you don’t get it, then redundancy is an option. Then you can head back to nursing. This seemed to be a path forward. So I thought, what do I really not want to do? And what will I have no qualifications for that will end up with my redundancy? I thought, oh, I’ll apply for this job in the disability sector. I applied for that, and got it!
At first, I thought, God, please, what is this? I really struggled for about the first two or three months, until I finally realised that this was actually an amazing job. I was working with people with tremendous life challenges, tremendous courage, tremendous fortitude. Just really amazing people. And I was part of it, and learning about it. I had the opportunity to try things: instead of just giving people standard issue home support, we were trying to figure out how people could provide what they needed for themselves, rather than what was dished out.
They were a really exciting few years. I had really amazing staff with me who also shared that same vision, and it was really good. Then the Government changed again, and it all went back to where it was. Funding was withdrawn. I thought, I don’t want to be part of this anymore. There were conflicts over who managed my contract. I did a bit of consulting for about six months before World Vision came along.
When you first got the World Vision job, what were your pervading feelings? Excited? Daunted?
A mix of both, I guess. I didn’t understand the breadth of the job at first. We’d talked a lot in interviews about the challenges of being in the developing world, and of managing budgets for the developing world, and so on. Also about the fact that World Vision was quite prominent on TV at that stage, and how would I manage that. But I hadn’t really registered that World Vision New Zealand was not only a development agency, it was a fundraising agency. Now, I know some members of the Board would disagree with me on that. But there were 87 staff when I got there, and probably 80 of that 87 staff were all involved in fundraising—raising money for the field. While the focus was to get the money to the field to get development in the field, a big part of what I was there to do was to raise the money for the work. That was quite daunting, really challenging.
A big learning curve about fundraising and donors, and how to navigate that whole world?
Yes. As well as manage the world of desperate need. It was polarised worlds, the two of them, yet combined. Fortunately, I had a wonderful marketing director, Bruce Waldin, who was exceptional. He took the primary burden of that fundraising so graciously, and so well. He was amazing.
How much were you overseas, on the ground? Did that come later in the job or at the very beginning?
Quite near the beginning. At the time I took over, the New Zealand dollar had taken a huge dive, and went from 60 odd cents to 38 cents against the American. We paid in American dollars, and of course our money shrank by almost 40%. Our field funding was cut by 40%. So I suddenly found myself having to go to some of these offices where we had big amounts of funding, and explain and try and work through how we would manage it, and what would happen. It was a difficult thing to have to do, but it was lovely that I got to meet the officers, talk with them, relate to them—I wasn’t happy just to send letters and say, look, you know, 40% is gone. Tough luck. It was about building those relationships, and trying to work through the difficulties together. I believed it was really important. It stood me in good stead during the years I was there as well. So, I was on the ground quite quickly, and running quite hard.