Tania Woodcock told us a little about her background this evening.
I was born and raised in Cannons Creek so I’m a born and bred local and my family connection to our community goes back to the earliest European settlers. My ancestors, the Mitchells, arrived in Wellington in 1841 – just a little after the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi.
They arrived on The Gertrude which is the same ship the Plimmers of Plimmer Steps and Plimmerton came out on.
They settled in what is now known as Aro Valley where they ran the sawmill. They also ran a pub in Abel Smith Street.
They became very close friends with another family who decided to name the part of Wellington they settled in after my family - Mitchelltown - a small suburb up near Brooklyn.
Around that time, tensions between Maori and Pakeha were increasing – funnily enough Maori weren’t too keen on selling their land – and this all resulted in the Armed Constabulary besieging the hilltop pa of Ngati Toa chief Te Rangihaeata for several days in 1846. My ancestor was part of the armed constabulary at that event at Battle Hill in Pauatahanui.
Although our ancestors weren’t on the same team, I feel a connection to Ngati Toa that goes back a long way.
I’m the eldest of six children – I’ve three full siblings, one half sibling, and a whāngai brother who lived with us for a while.
To be frank, I come from quite a dysfunctional family and the only two members that I remain in contact with are my father and my half sister, his daughter who was adopted out at birth.
My parents both dropped out of school very early so didn’t have any qualifications. They were teenage parents when they had me and my brother, and while many teenage parents do a fantastic job, mine really struggled. They had a range of complexities in their lives, and had limited support.
This meant that I had quite a lot of responsibility growing up, and within our extended family I was known as ‘the other mother’ from a very young age.
I grew up in a time – as did you - when what happened behind closed doors stayed behind closed doors. This meant that even though the neighbours and extended family knew things often weren’t good at our house, there was little to no intervention or support, and as a child I felt it really important to keep everything secret and so I also never really sought help, but I intensely felt the responsibility to care for my family. My father had an excellent work ethic and I remember him often working several jobs at one time so they could own their own house. My mother was a factory worker when I was young then studied for a professional qualification later in life and made a career around that.
Home life wasn’t so great so school was important to me. I went to Russell School, loved books and can’t remember a time when I couldn’t read. The only problem was that I couldn’t write! In those days no-one knew about dyslexia so I was a bit of an oddity. I can remember being only about seven years old and a group of teachers taking me to the library and getting me to read out loud out of encyclopedias to see if I could read the words and to test my comprehension. I excelled well beyond my years with every challenge they set with reading and comprehension … no-one could understand why I couldn’t really write a sentence though.
Spellathons were a complete nightmare throughout primary and intermediate because even if they gave me baby words to spell I’d rarely get any correct. My report cards always talked about me daydreaming out of the window and that was because if I asked a teacher for help they’d invariably tell me to sound the word out and look in the dictionary – a complete impossibility for someone who simply could not relate sounds to letters. I’d ask my classmates how to spell a word – rotating around different people - but they’d all eventually get frustrated with me. I’d often start to write something and, by the time I’d found out how to spell a word I’d have lost the train of thought about what I was going to write in the first place, or I would have absolutely no idea about how to write a particular word so I’d dumb down my sentence to include words that I thought I could roughly spell.
I went to Waitangirua Intermediate and then on to Mana College. In my 5th form year I took History. The teacher would start every class with a debate – he’d divide the class in two and have the composition of each team change each day. With two exceptions. I would always be asked to lead one team and Tony Sutorius the other. We had some full-on debates! We ended up being in the same wider group of friends by the 7th form but our group all lost contact at the end of that year.
I started to do quite well academically in senior high school. I had three very good teachers and one in particular who seemed to see potential in me and took a real interest. I was still a really terrible speller but could usually make my written work understood. I was too shy to get a job (to my parent’s disappointment) so I went to university and (at that teacher’s suggestion) studied Law. I also studied Psychology. I pretty much bombed out of both. It was too big a jump for me – I was the first person from both sides of my entire extended family to stay in school beyond the 5th form – in fact when I announced at the end of 7th form that I was going to go to university, my mother’s response was to say “I suppose you’re going to start shopping at op shops and smelling like mothballs now.” University was not something our family did and it was a complete culture shock for me. I dropped out and got a job working in a factory in Elsdon and did that for about a year which was a fantastic learning opportunity.
Then I got a job working in Wellington in the mailroom of the Department of Social Welfare/DSW. I did pretty well and before long got a data entry role and then a secondment as an operational policy person. I also started studying at university again, one paper at a time which worked much better for me. I got acting management opportunities at work and a role as a policy analyst – all while I continued to study. I always felt like an impostor though because I didn’t have even a bachelors qualification and in those days (the mid-1990s), most people needed a masters degree to get a policy analyst gig.
Mine and Tony’s paths didn’t cross again until we were 28 and banged into each other in a café in Wellington. We had a nice chat. He was with his girlfriend and I was flying out the next day for a three month trip around Europe and Egypt – coming home to graduate with my BA and save enough money to head off overseas again – this time to live. We exchanged business cards and on my very first day back in the office he phoned to see if I wanted to catch up for lunch. Suffice to say, the girlfriend was gone, we picked up our friendship, and I didn’t end up moving overseas. We have been together for about 23 years and have a 20 year old son, Theo.
I continued to do well at work – landing an opportunity to be a Private Secretary, Policy, to a senior cabinet minister, and then when I was pregnant with Theo, as a Chief Executive Advisor to the head of the Ministry of Social Development (who is now the head of the public service). As part of my professional development I was given a scholarship to undertake full-time study for a year and I chose to do a Masters in Public Administration which I started when Theo was three years old.
I’ve been contracting for the last eleven years and worked in a wide range of organisations on everything from developing legislation, to implementing Free Trade Agreements. I’ve also been a regional manager for Barnardos NZ, one of New Zealand’s largest and most trusted organisations. Next week I start a new contract at NZ Police as a Policy Manager.
I joined Rotary because making a difference is really important to me personally and professionally, and I connected with the purpose and strategic values of Rotary as an organisation. It’s lovely to see Philip Mottram here tonight – it was Philip who connected me with this club. I joined our club in 2018 – the same time as you Kay (I remember us both sitting at the President’s table during our introductory meetings).
In my time here I’ve been involved in the Community and Youth Committees, and am currently on the Club Service Committee. I’ve also helped out tutoring our Myanmar students, with the Pre-school clothing initiative, the Rotary Forest of Peace and Remembrance, the Foodbank garden, and the Primary School Leadership Awards, among other things.
The start I had in life would not really have been a natural pathway to working at senior levels in government, nor really to ending up in Rotary. I was lucky – I had a small number of people who took an interest in me and helped out in small ways. But those ways made a real difference. I once had to suddenly move to a new town as a child and pretty much only had the clothes I was wearing. I remember the joy of being taken into an op shop by a total stranger and told I could choose any clothes I wanted. I can imagine the similar impact our pre-school clothing initiative brings to families in our community.
In conclusion, it never ceases to amaze me how incredibly resilient children and young people are. Disabilities can often come with great gifts. When a child or young person is having a tough time, it can often be fairly simple things that make the world of difference – having the right clothing or gear to be able to participate in activities other kids take for granted, having an adult take an interest in you and seeing your potential, someone suggesting you could do something that’s right outside of your worldview. Our Rotary club makes a difference in lots of small ways to the people of our community and that brings me joy.