NZ Life & Leisure
RACHAEL UTUMAPU QSM LEFT SCHOOL AT 15 FOR HAIRDRESSING. SINCE THEN, HER LIFE HAS BEEN DEDICATED TO THE COMMUNITY WORDS LEE - ANNE DUNCAN
Rachael Utumapu is all fired up
1970s to 1988 Under the mountain
Rachael Utumapu grew up on a third- generation dairy farm in Kaponga, a tiny town on the southern side of Mount Taranaki. “We say it has the best view of the mountain because we can see both peaks.”
1988 to 1993 Learning the perm
During the first week of her summer holidays at the end of the fifth form ( year 11), Rachael’s mother drove her into Hāwera, stopped the car at the end of the main street and instructed her to get out. “She told me to go into each hair salon and ask if they had holiday work.” The move surprised Rachael, who was thinking about getting into hairdressing, but maybe not quite yet. Nervously she did as instructed, and the very first salon asked her to start tomorrow. It was the days of weekly sets and spiral perms, and Rachael loved it — so much so, she never went back to Ōpunake High School. “I loved the combination of conversation and creativity, and I loved making people feel good. Cutting hair was my strength, although I can’t promise I had 100 per cent success as a colourist.”
1993 to 2003 Teaching the trade
Wanting a bit more after five years on the salon floor, Rachael applied to head a new one-year pre-trade hairdressing course at the Hāwera satellite campus of what’s now the Western Institute of Technology. “I managed to keep that course going for seven years,” she says. The campus also offered a life-skills course to differently abled people, and Rachael asked those students over every fortnight so her students could do their hair. “At first, my teenagers hung back, a bit unsure. But I told them, ‘ They’re our clients, and they’re all important. It’s your job to make sure they have a good experience.’ "Gradually, the relationships built and the respect between those students was incredible. I’d think, ‘ If there’s one thing I taught them, it’s to have respect for everyone and not to judge or assume, as everyone has something to offer if they’re given a chance.’” After seven years of teaching in Hāwera, Rachael went on to train hairdressers at the New Plymouth campus. During that time, she also had two sons (now in their 20s). Her years of speaking in front of a class and making people look good and feel great set her up for what was to come.
2003 to 2018 Fighting fires
Rachael is always looking for something different, and in 2003, she was accepted as a career firefighter. She’d considered all three emergency services, but a ride-along with a fire crew sold her on Fire and Emergency New Zealand.
“I was hooked. I loved what the crew did that day. We are there for the community, and we are part of people’s lives when they really, really need us.” Her appointment made her New Plymouth’s very first female career firefighter. “The others were pretty nervous that things were going to change because I was there, and for a long time, I was known as The Girl.” In 2005, she joined the Fire Awareness Intervention Programme (FAIP) management team, aimed at youth who set fires. For eight years, Rachael was the only female firefighter at the station. While other women have joined — and left — since, Rachael is pleased she was able to show women it can be done. However, getting more women onto the frontline is slow going — when Rachael joined in 2003, only two per cent of career firefighters were women, and now it’s still only six per cent. (About 20 per cent of volunteer firefighters are female.)
2018 to 2021 A female focus
In 2018, Rachael left the front line to become the national manager of Women’s Development for Fire and Emergency. “Women have been career firefighters for 40 years and volunteering even longer, so we needed to find out why still so few are willing.” Part of Rachael’s job was to cast a “gender lens” across the organization’s activities to ensure barriers were removed for women, which helps men, too. “Parental leave, for example. We have written our guidelines, so they work for women and men.” Rachael also set up a national support network, Women in Fire and Emergency, where women can find support, mentoring and encouragement to stay in the organization. “If you’re community- minded, being a firefighter has a lot to offer, and the role has changed a lot in recent years. So much of it is about community.”
2009 to 2021 A sideline in style
Alongside her firefighting, Rachael continues to put her hairdressing experience to excellent use as the facilitator for Look Good Feel Better in New Plymouth and Hāwera. The classes help women facing cancer connect and enjoy makeovers, building their confidence. She now co-facilitates online workshops for men, too.
“It’s a cup-filling thing. I come away feeling so inspired by everyone’s courage, sense of humour and strength. It’s so uplifting.”
In 2017, Rachael co-founded The New Hair Project, a non- profit organization providing wig services for people suffering hair loss. She and her two co-founders donate their time, while local businesses support the operational costs. Rachael Utumapu’s dedication to her community was justly recognized in the Queen’s Birthday Honours with a Queen’s Service Medal. “It’s a great team effort, of course, but it was wonderful to be acknowledged."
Creating a business that brings together everything I have learned so far and delivers so much joy to my customers adds up to a lot of excitement in my life. I’d love to think everyone feels that way about their work; it should give them a strong sense of purpose, knowing they are really helping others in a tangible way. In my case, Mrs Blackwell's Village Bookshop is a place to discover new dreams, learn more about any topic that interests me or pick up a very analogue method of capturing thoughts or communicating with others in the form of high quality paper and the world’s very best pencils! I love my job!
Mrs Blackwell’s Village Bookshop was born as an idea during lockdown in 2020. My husband Adam and I were out walking in our little town and reminiscing about the wonderful bookshops we have had the privilege of visiting all over the world. It’s always one of our travel missions in any new place … find the bookshops! We’ve always loved what small independent bookshops promise - a sense of adventure, new ideas or romance… and the feeling that the owner cares deeply about the store and their customers. The decision to open my own was a seize-the-day moment and Adam encouraged me to go after a dream I had thought about for years.
Greytown is just a little bit famous for our Victorian architecture and I was fortunate enough to take the lease on a little shop right next to our beautiful Town Hall which also serves as our library. Funnily enough, my building used to be the town library many decades ago. Designing the new store to serve the needs of both our residents as well as visitors, and incorporating all of the best attributes of what we had seen in other countries was a starting point. But more importantly, I wanted to create an experience that was warm and welcoming. It’s important to me to bring a sense of comfort and generosity into a space with my name on it, and ensure my guests experience something wonderful. The right music, careful lighting and warmth – we have a little log burner to keep the store cosy in the winter – are critical of course. But books and stationery are the reasons to come inside! A carefully curated selection displayed in easy-tonavigate categories makes the most of our wall space. And Adam’s idea of a secret bookshelf door that leads to the staff room was brilliantly executed by our team of builders. No, I won’t disclose where it is!
Mrs Blackwell’s Village Bookshop is a year old in December and we have welcomed thousands of guests through our door since we opened. Aside from our selection of local and international books and some of the best stationery we can find across the globe, we also create our own book totes, jigsaw puzzles, cards and postcards and our Greytown friend Kate bakes our Bookies, a special cookie-like snack to be enjoyed with a cup of tea and your favourite book. Adam’s still trying to figure out if he likes Salted Caramel or Chocolate Chunk more.
Please call in and say hello if you are passing through Greytown in the South Wairarapa. We’re always ready to help find a gift for a hard-to-buy-for Dad or Grandma and we have happily accepted our role as a part-time information centre for anyone wishing to find a nice restaurant in our lovely village. If you can’t make it in person, we’re open online as well.