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.
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.