A chip off the old block
April Johnson was inspired by her parents and the journey of a family member after a serious car crash.
The fish and chips kid of Huntly was destined to find her niche in helping others.
April Johnson has spent the last six years at Life Unlimited and is now the Community services support manager responsible for a team of seven.
April’s mother Brenda ran Johnson’s Fish and Chip shop in Huntly, where she was born, and for years, she was known as the fish and chip kid.
She grew up watching her mum work as a stalwart in the community, serving on the town’s community board and in recent years supporting refugees as they come into the province.
When Patrick (Pat) Rutene came into Brenda’s life, April’s new dad made an immediate impression.
“He was an amazing man, he would be at every netball game I had, he did two jobs to make sure we got what we wanted,” April said.
He was also a man who would devote his time to the community and ensuring April and her siblings were similarly involved.
Their world was turned upside down when April was 14. A car crash claimed the life of a cousin and uncle and left another cousin, Peter, with significant brain injuries.
Brenda and Pat, recognising the facilities near them would help Peter more than what was available in Murupara, offered full-time care.
“After six months we began therapy and I was in the multi-sensory room to watch. From the fifth form I knew I wanted to become an occupational therapist,” April said.
Pat was at that time a team leader for Lifestyle 2000 in Hamilton’s Sunshine Avenue where his positive disposition was valued greatly.
“Dad never saw what people couldn’t do.”
April enrolled in Otago University, but tragedy struck again.
At the end of her first year she and whanau were preparing to celebrate Pat’s birthday.
“We were buying outfits and phoned home.”
A police officer answered and broke the news that Pat had died suddenly.
He was laid to rest in Te Whaiti, in the Urewera ranges, following a tangi, which drew many of the people he had helped. It was seen as symbolic that at a key moment during the tangi a group of horses ran down the nearby road.
April returned from Otago to work in the Waikato initially as an Iwi health worker then at the Ministry of Social Development, where Brenda has worked for 26 years.
After six years she decided she was on the wrong path, so crossed the ditch, but came home after nine months and spotted an advert.
“It was an opportunity to run a mobile van and go to rural communities and provide products to assist people to improve their lives. I went through the interview process, but an hour after I got a call inviting me to interview for a field officer role assisting Maori instead.”
Three weeks after returning from Australia she was in a role she would enjoy for three years. It was the first step on the ladder to her present role, which she started last October.
She oversees the marae-based Ngā Mara Ātea programme at Hamilton’s Kirikiriroa Marae, health programmes, transition and mobility programmes and the same multi-sensory room at Life Unlimited’s head office in Hamilton that she saw in use as a 14-year-old.
It’s her dream job.
“I’ve been lucky to have had a chief executive and board which support us – I didn’t want to be just a team manager,” she said.
April is also energised by the fact that she sees 2019 as a pivotal year in the transformation of how care is provided for the disabled community. She sees it as 30 years of “wants” coming to fruition.
April, who is Waikato-Tainui, is also pleased to see appropriate acknowledgements and awareness of tikanga Māori.
It is a far cry from a time when the Tokanui psychiatric unit closed and whānau were unaware family members were being cared for there.
“I seriously love what I do here.”