An evening with John Kirwan

Over 500 people gathered in Te Aroha last month to listen to Sir John Kirwan, or JK as he’s most commonly known, share his humble yet powerful words on managing mental health and the process of moving from surviving to thriving. 

It was an important message for rural communities. Across the country there is a common theme emerging of people on farms who, over the past few years, have persevered through challenge upon challenge. Over time, this feeling of facing a battle on many fronts takes a toll. The result is once lively people looking weary, worn down and having lost their spark. This was apparent to Theresa Tomkinson and Rex Madden, who work together at PGG Wrightson Tatuanui.  

Theresa has an eye for spotting when things are off with someone. As the saying goes, it takes one to know one. Recently Theresa has experienced the loss of her brother in December last year and dealt with her dog being run over. She also experienced a reaction to a COVID vaccine and had to deal with the stress of COVID vaccine mandates earlier in the year. As a result of all this Theresa had started having panic attacks. She knew she wasn’t okay and decided to have a chat to Rex, Store Manager at PGG Tatuanui. 

While many well-meaning managers can inadvertently foster a culture of productivity first, people second, Rex is a bit different. As Theresa explains. “Rex is really open. It’s really good to have a boss you can talk to when things build up”. Thoughtfully, she adds “But the relationship needs to be there to start with. Bosses need to be approachable, and you need to know that they care.” Having reached out, and with Rex’s support at work, Theresa tried some different avenues and eventually found the professional assistance she needed.  

Over the next few months Theresa’s wellbeing returned, but she started noticing the wellbeing of customers coming in. Farmers who had gone through drought and other challenges, who, while normally very happy, were not ok.  She says, “We’re a retail store, but it’s a different kind of relationship here compared to other big chain stores. We have relationships, we know our customers names, their partner, where their kids go to school, what’s going on at the farm. They’re not scared to talk to us, and they know it stays between us”.  

Rex also noticed people struggling. “There was a greater need.” he says, “We saw people were struggling on a large scale, and not just our customers. People in many local businesses were having a tough time. Others we spoke to were seeing it too.” Rex recounts one conversation in particular with Steve Allen, Chairman at Tatua factory across the road from the store. “Steve came over one day to see Theresa for a trailer load of mag. She was talking to him outside and he was asking about how the farmers are and how things are going. What stood out was the real empathy he had for people. So, Theresa and I thought we’d talk to Steve about doing something.” 

Two weeks after their initial chat with Steve, Rex and Theresa met again with Steve and Brendan Greaney, CEO of Tatua Dairy Company, Kathy Paton, Brendan’s PA, Wanda Leadbeater, Coordinator at Rural Support Waikato and Neil Bateup, Chairperson of Rural Support Waikato, to see what they could do to support local farmers in the Haruaki Plains, Morrinsville,  Matamata and Te Aroha areas. By the time the group held their second meeting, they saw the need for an event that could draw people from far and wide. Theresa recalls, ”At first, we were looking just to target farmers, rather than growers. At the second meeting we changed it to anyone dealing with the rural community. I’d recently had a horse dentist come in to do my horse’s teeth and she talked about pressure on vets. So, we decided we needed to maximise attendance.” 

“We wanted anyone to feel they could come, and not have people think it was just for PGG Wrightson customers. The timing was important too, we wanted it to be at a time when people could attend, not at a time they were busy on-farm. It was ideal to have Rural Support as the main face of the event, as they are nationwide and have all the professional systems and processes in place to support people. RS had councillors on hand at the event too. It’s a lot easier to talk to someone when you meet face to face”.  

The event drew over 500 people from Te Aroha to Bay of Plenty, with over a third of the attendees travelling over 50kms to attend. Rex and Theresa greeted every attendee at the door and invited them to enjoy the tables laden with steaks provided at no cost by local meat company, Greenlea Premier Meats. The meal was combined with a warm welcome from Steve Allen, followed by an introduction from Neil Bateup of the ever inspiring  JK himself. The highlight of the night was JK’s presentation, as one attendee described later, “JK just blew us all away with his helpful, informative amusing and totally entertaining hour or so.” 

Rex recounts the generosity of the local businesses and community groups that supported the event. “The local support we received was outstanding. Stu and the Morrinsville Lions Club worked one of the three the BBQs, and they set up all the tables to a restaurant quality which made the dining very streamlined. Our local supermarkets, New World Morrinsville and Matamata, and PaknSave Thames provided volumes of bread rolls and salad. We thought we’d approach a few of the big accounting firms for support, but one chat to the team at Cooper Aitken was all that was needed. The team jumped on board and Vanessa joined the working group. Everyone who came on board contributed to the success of the event”.

Over the hour, JK explained how he rolls out his day and what tools he uses to thrive. He covered themes such as taking a break from your phone, taking time to unplug your thoughts and be in the moment, whether it’s really ‘feeling’ the water when taking a shower, or looking at the faces around you at family mealtime. He explained the benefit of taking time off-farm and letting workers run it for a day so you can unplug, the importance of personal values, telling people you love them and how to use the Groov phone app (developed by JK) to boost wellbeing. 

JK explained a key message; what we’re currently doing in New Zealand to support people who are struggling is not working. An approach which encourages people to toughen up and get on with it, or at best, individually seek help doesn’t work. What works is a caring and loving community. Local people supporting other local people, having real conversations, helping people to get local support from trained professionals such as the Rural Support and other local wellbeing organisations. Being open to talk truthfully about how you are feeling is important, as well as knowing who’s there in the community to help. 

People took away from the evening practical tools they can use every day, and a greater understanding of how to support someone who is struggling as well as knowing the patterns people can go through and recognising them when they happen. The app (free to download from the App Store or Google Play) provides people with a way to help themselves and includes tools to help anyone overcome wellbeing challenges such as difficulty sleeping, anxiety, depression, and stress.  

In the weeks since the event, attendees have openly shared the positive impact of the evening with Rex, Theresa, Steve, Brendan, Kathy and Wanda. 

“The last few months have been so incredibly difficult. We did not realise how beneficial a night off farm could be. Thanks heaps for organising this – It was a fabulous night – just what we needed :-)” 

“I came as a single female, having recently left my depressed husband who got very aggressive with it, and felt so welcomed by everyone. Made some notes during JKs presentation which I will keep referring back to for the sake of my own mental health. It’s been a pretty tough time. I sincerely hope that others found as many “take aways” from the evening as I did. Fantastic job to all of you for having the courage to see this need and make it happen.” 

“I just wanted to email and say how good it was and valuable for the community. I loved seeing so many middle to later aged men especially there, and many couples who I recognised as my parents friends, or friend’s parents! I really believe that people took in what JK was saying and respected him enough to listen. So valuable for everyone there, but especially our local farmers. I just wanted to pass on how incredible the night was. The gifting of food and everyone eating together gave such a massive community feel. I don’t know if this is possible but having it as an annual or bi-annual event would be really cool to see in the future.” 

The positive impact of the evening has created a buzz in the Tatuanui store, and Theresa isn’t stopping there. As she explains, “We know a change isn’t going to happen unless the community is behind it, so it comes down to each person doing what they can to make a difference. Wanda introduced me to Pauline McLeod, author of the children’s book Sir Port, The Positivity Dog. Pauline is going to visit my kid’s daycare to read the story, which is about farm dog whose family goes through some tough times. The story introduces the idea of a Joy Jar, and you put into it special moments that bring you joy. There will be activities the kids can take home, so they can share the ideas with their families. We also have another two lined up that want us to visit their daycare and playcentre. It’s one way we can have a positive impact, and if everyone does something small, we can make a really big difference to our community. ” 

“We hope others can feel inspired to do something in their communities too. You don’t have to organise a big event with over 500 people, but we’re really happy to share how we made that happen if people see the need in their communities for something like that. Lifting the wellbeing of people around you comes down to having a genuine care for the people around you, and doing something practical to help. It could be having a cup of tea, providing a listening ear and offering to make a phone call to let a boss know their worker is struggling or putting them in touch with Rural Support. It will be many small things combined that make the difference to our rural communities, and we all have the opportunity to do something”. 

Article accreditation:  PGG Wrightsons Tatuanui (Nov, 2022)

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