Judy Bai­ley talks to for­mer Women’s Refuge CEO about her new role and choos­ing to live again

Heather Henare, for­mer head of Women’s Refuge, talks to Judy Bai­ley about her cur­rent role and what has given her the em­pa­thy to care for others.

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - CONTENTS - AWW

Ifirst met Heather Henare nearly 10 years ago when she was head­ing the Women’s Refuge move­ment. I have long been hor­ri­fied by the vi­o­lence that so many women and chil­dren en­counter daily in their own homes, gen­er­ally at the hands of the very peo­ple who should be their great­est pro­tec­tors. It was Heather who asked me to be­come a pa­tron of the move­ment. She is very dif­fi­cult to refuse.

The depth of her con­cern for the peo­ple she serves is com­pelling. She is gen­er­ous with her time and en­ergy – so gen­er­ous that it took a toll on her health and caused her to take stock. After nearly a decade at the helm she moved on from Refuge.

Heather now heads an­other great not-for-profit or­gan­i­sa­tion. ‘Sky­light’ helps chil­dren, young peo­ple and their fam­i­lies through trauma, loss and grief. It was a log­i­cal step for this car­ing, em­pa­thetic woman.

Heather was born 57 years ago in the small Waikato farm­ing town of Mor­rinsville. Her par­ents, Mur­ray and Joyce Croad, were sharemilk­ers; Heather, the youngest of five girls. Mur­ray and Joyce also fos­tered chil­dren, among them a baby boy, Jimmy, who they later adopted.

But Heather’s mother had a dark side. After los­ing her own mum when very young, she was her­self fos­tered in a num­ber of homes and ter­ri­bly abused along the way. The abuse left its mark on Joyce and she was prone to deep de­pres­sions and vi­o­lent mood swings.

Heather ex­plains, “Although I wasn’t a vic­tim of her vi­o­lence, my sis­ters were. I was a silent observer for a long time. I learnt how to as­sess risk, how to pro­tect my­self and to be com­pli­ant.

“When Mum was well, she was lov­ing and kind. She was al­ways car­ing for others. She wanted so much to be a good per­son,” Heather says, sadly.

Her mother en­dured long stays in hos­pi­tal, on a cock­tail of drugs. She even had shock ther­apy. “Dad would call these times Mum’s ‘hol­i­days’,” she tells me rue­fully.

In the good times Heather and her sib­lings would go away to the beach with their mum. “The beach seemed calm­ing for her,” she ex­plains. “I’m drawn to it too.”

Heather’s mother died at 57 of a heart at­tack. “I choose to re­mem­ber the good things,” says Heather. “I’m grate­ful for what she taught me. She taught me for­give­ness, to be kind and hum­ble and to have a hu­man re­sponse.” All things that would later play a big part in Heather’s ca­reer.

A lesser per­son would have al­lowed all this to have coloured their life, so why not Heather? “It’s about how re­silient you are,” she ex­plains. “I was ex­tremely close to my old­est sis­ter. She was a huge in­flu­ence, kind of like a sur­ro­gate mum.”

Heather is an asth­matic. From around seven on­wards she would end up in hos­pi­tal three or four times a year on steroids. The steroids af­fected her weight and her gen­eral health. The long hos­pi­tal stays meant she missed big chunks of school­ing. It was hard to catch up and even­tu­ally, at 15, she dropped out.

She was wait­ress­ing at the Man­gonui Ho­tel when she met Ge­orge Henare, the charm­ing and hand­some son of the cook there (not the ac­tor of the same name). She was 16, he was 26.

They moved to Auck­land where Ge­orge got a job at a lo­cal su­per­mar­ket. Their son Shilo, now 39, was born a year later.

There was no money. Heather, who adores chil­dren, helped out by look­ing after other peo­ple’s kids. Then one day, she says, “I just thought, there’s got to be more to life than this.” And she and Ge­orge parted.

A solo mum on the DPB, she was lonely and vul­ner­a­ble when she fell for Eric Han­d­ley. He was great com­pany, but also vi­o­lent. Heather be­came preg­nant. Her baby, Chantelle, died two days after birth. She was in­ter­nally de­formed.

At 26, Heather fi­nally built up the courage to tell her doc­tors she wasn’t go­ing to take the steroids any longer. Soon af­ter­wards her daugh­ter

I choose to re­mem­ber the good things. I’m grate­ful for what she taught me.

Tabitha, 31, was born. A son, Tal­madge, 28, came along three years later.

By this time Heather was a reg­u­lar visitor to the Pon­sonby Women’s Cen­tre. She be­came a fem­i­nist and be­gan to learn to as­sert her­self. “I learnt to walk between both worlds. Peo­ple weren’t aware that I was be­ing abused.

“Later I would meet women I knew at the time and they would say, ‘We were so wor­ried about you.’

“But they never said, they never said,” she tells me, shak­ing her head sadly.

Heather had been work­ing at Auck­land Rape Cri­sis when she did a job swap with an ad­vo­cate at the Women’s Refuge. “The col­lec­tive knew there was some­thing go­ing on. They helped me to see a way out of the re­la­tion­ship.”

They en­cour­aged the young mother to tackle a so­cial work diploma. “I was dyslexic, I’d never fin­ished school, but they coached me and sup­ported me through uni.”

After work­ing at Child Youth and Fam­ily as a so­cial worker, she wound up at Princess Mary Hos­pi­tal, the fore­run­ner to Star­ship. And it was there that she first con­fronted her grief over the death of her baby.

“Mar­garet Tucker, the se­nior so­cial worker, sat me down and said. ‘Have you ever been to grief coun­selling?’

“I said, ‘No… why?’”

“Be­cause you latch on to ev­ery fam­ily here who has a dy­ing child.”

Mar­garet in­sisted Heather com­plete a 12-week grief work­shop. “I was a com­plete mess for 12 weeks but it was the best thing she ever did for me,” Heather says.

With that in­ti­mate knowl­edge of the value of grief sup­port it seems she was al­most des­tined to head the or­gan­i­sa­tion she now leads. (Sky­light is highly re­garded in the field of grief, loss and trauma sup­port.) Un­re­solved trauma of any kind can colour our en­tire lives, af­fect­ing our re­la­tion­ships, our ap­petite and di­ges­tion, our sleep, even our abil­ity to con­cen­trate. It causes stress, and stress has a cas­cad­ing ef­fect down through all the ar­eas of the brain.

Heather went on to carve out a dis­tin­guished ca­reer in so­cial work. Her rep­u­ta­tion spread to the min­istry in Welling­ton. She was called to the cap­i­tal to help set up a risk as­sess­ment model for re­port­ing child abuse. The fam­ily moved to Welling­ton and it was there Heather fi­nally ac­knowl­edged her re­la­tion­ship was over. She left Eric, but the leav­ing didn’t go well.

He had a ma­jor break­down. It was also the first trauma their daugh­ter, Tabitha, had wit­nessed and it had a ter­ri­ble im­pact. She was 11.

“We went through seven years of hell,” Heather tells me. The pain of that time fills her eyes. She left her job to care for her daugh­ter full time. “I spent ev­ery day try­ing to keep her alive. She blamed me (for the break-up), thought it was all my fault.

“I spent a lot of time sit­ting in my car watch­ing her, mak­ing sure she was okay. She was with a whole lot of kids who were liv­ing on the street, aban­doned by the state. Tabitha was drawn to them. Here was a whole gen­er­a­tion of kids des­per­ately need­ing to be cared for.”

Heather started ad­vo­cat­ing for them. She would feed and clothe them and in re­turn they’d help her keep an eye on Tabitha.

“These kids would of­ten have come through the jus­tice sys­tem. We live in a time when we hold young peo­ple re­spon­si­ble for their crimes… but what has hap­pened to them ear­lier? They may have been raped by their father, beaten by their mum; they find the safest place to be is on the street. My pri­or­ity was keep­ing my daugh­ter safe and if I could keep others safe then well and good.

“I took ev­ery op­por­tu­nity to learn from the ex­pe­ri­ence and make a dif­fer­ence.”

Eric died five years ago. De­spite the vi­o­lence, “He was the love of my life,” she tells me sadly. “I know he loved me, re­gard­less. If ever I needed any­one, he would turn up. I re­mem­ber wak­ing up at 46 after my first heart at­tack and there he was sit­ting at my side. I have never felt anger or bit­ter­ness to­wards Eric. I re­alised very early on that peo­ple don’t al­ways do the right thing.”

It was a sec­ond heart at­tack, two years ago, that prompted her exit from Refuge. “I needed to down­size the stress. I would have been taken out of Refuge in a box. The work is end­less. The ex­pec­ta­tions… end­less,” she says wearily.

Heather is now in a re­la­tion­ship with an­other woman. “I was al­ways drawn to women,” she says mat­ter of factly.

She and her IT con­sul­tant part­ner He­lena Coolen mar­ried in the sum­mer of 2015. These days He­lena runs a steam punk food truck for home­less peo­ple, pay­ing it for­ward. They split their time between a one-bed­room apart­ment in Welling­ton and a lifestyle sec­tion in Fox­ton, where they live sim­ply in a cou­ple of buses.

And Heather? As CEO of Sky­light, Heather makes the most of a life­time of knowl­edge and ex­pe­ri­ence, help­ing make sure others are able to ac­cess the help she found so valu­able.

They may have been raped by their father, beaten by their mum; they find the safest place to be is on the street.

OP­PO­SITE PAGE: Heather is an ex­am­ple of ad­ver­sity lead­ing to strength.

ABOVE: Heather at her desk in the Sky­light of­fice.

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