Not long after earning a mental health qualification, a New Plymouth barber realized that the perfect place to apply his newfound skills was his barber chair.
Steven Stewart has since volunteered more than 100 hours with clippers and scissors in hand for the Taranaki Retreat — a suicide prevention initiative — which is celebrating its fifth anniversary this month.
Stewart said the idea came to him during his internship at Taranaki Base Hospital while completing a certificate in mental health and addiction.
“When I was in the hospital, I took some of my tools and I sat in the front and cut some of the patients’ hair and it seemed to work, like there was actually a bandage. People opened up.”
After completing his qualification, Stewart approached the retreat’s pou ārahi, Executive Officer Jamie Allen, asking if he could join.
He has since volunteered at Waimanako – The Hope Centre, a New Plymouth support center that is an offshoot of the Taranaki Retreat.
“It was fantastic and one of the things I love about being down there is the creativity of the people that come in.
“The haircuts you do there aren’t the same as those in a barbershop, but I like that.”
And then there’s the conversation.
“They just want to chat, they want to sit down, talk about their day. Often it’s not very heavy and rarely do I find myself giving advice.
“They just want someone to listen to them and once they feel heard they have a smile on their face.”
Born out of Jamie Allen’s own personal suffering, the Taranaki Retreat has now helped over 10,000 whānau and individuals who have endured trauma in their lives.
A former dean of Taranaki Cathedral, Allen, and his wife Suzy came up with the idea of the retreat after losing their daughter Carrie to cancer in 2012.
Allen said they have experienced fantastic care at the Ronald McDonald House, but felt it was for a very specific kaupapa.
“We felt that there was a similar need for mental health support, for substance abuse treatment, for helping people who are dealing with suffering in their lives, but where that suffering didn’t reach the acute level where it came to clinical support at the hospital level, It actually needed the community’s turnaround.”
So the couple sold their home and set up a trust that opened the farmland retreat on the outskirts of New Plymouth in 2017.
Allen described it as a “place to breathe”.
“It’s a time-out space… it’s where getting out of what’s happening in life is the right decision and just hitting that pause button and taking a time-out.”
Run by about a dozen staff and 100 volunteers, the retreat includes accommodation, a gym, gardens – with uninterrupted views of Mt Taranaki – free-range chickens and a single pet goat.
An evening meal is served by a host family and each resident is assigned a personal attendant and professional care is also provided.
The Waimanako – The Hope Center opened in New Plymouth about a year ago with the help of the district council.
Allen said demand for the retreat affected his work.
“It was just so busy. There would be people all the time, there would be people in need, the phone would ring all the time, there was constant traffic and we realized this was actually not helpful to the very people we were talking to.” trying to give space.”
He said Waimanako connected with other services, providing food for koha, several workshops, a “listening ear” service, and catered to those people who just wanted to rock.
Charlotte Forsyth, who worked behind an espresso machine, had first-hand experience with the retreat’s services.
In 2018, she lost her brother David to suicide.
“I had a beautiful girlfriend who heard about the retreat and she actually referred me because I was one of those people who thought I didn’t need it and there were other people who needed it more than me.”
She spent a week at the retreat with her husband and two teenage sons.
“I was trying to be everything to everyone. Taking care of my parents, taking care of my own family, navigating a lot of intertwined things and I just felt overwhelmed with everything and held everything in my hands.
“So I was clearly lost on the plot and needed a little help.”
Forsyth said the retreat gave her room to recover.
“I always say to get off the bus, you know the world bus, and the ability to get off, not have to be anywhere, not have to pick up the phone, not have to plan the day, and just go with the flow was so important.”
Forsyth rebooked as an individual six months later to address the remaining grief and guilt over her brother’s suicide and plan a way forward.
She now volunteers at Waimanako two days a week, sits in empathy groups, and tends the Remembrance Garden at the retreat.
Forsyth could not emphasize enough the importance of the service the retreat provided.
“I think it’s given me a huge step up and it still does, and that’s one thing I love about the retreat is that they don’t just have you for a stay and then ‘Goodbye, thanks for your stay’, and ‘Are you okay?’ occasionally.
“You can connect anytime, any time you need it, whenever you need it, in whatever form it takes for you.”
It was a point echoed by hairdresser Steven Stewart, who said people in Taranaki didn’t [know] how lucky they were to have the Retreat.
“The Taranaki Retreat and Waimanako should be a prototype for all provincial centers, every city needs this kind of service.
“Community run, community supported and it brings out such wonderful people. There are so many people who have so much to give.”
Jamie Allen said Taranaki Retreat, on the occasion of its fifth anniversary, is aiming to create a team of 555 people who make a regular donation of $5 a month to help continue the work. And it also runs a Givealittle page.
“We’re just trying to find a little more support so we can keep doing what we’re doing for the next five years, otherwise the next five months would be good.”
In the first six months of Waimanako – The Hope Center:
- Served over 10,000 whānau and individuals at Te Huinga – The Gathering.
- Made even more 7,000 hot drinks, 1,500 daily breakfasts prepared, 4,500 mushrooms and 2,750 sliced tomatoes.
- Rescued mountains of food destined for landfill.
- Offered 110 hours of haircuts for a koha.
- Supported an average of 302 whānau and individuals at any given time, through hardship, fear, grief, loss, trauma and in finding hope.
- 500 hours of volunteer mahi poured into our community.
- Provides 7,488 hours of residential support.
- Cared for, cried, thought, laughed, encouraged and worked 7280 hours on solutions
- Offered 520 hours of support groups and workshops
Where to get help:
Need to talk? Call or text 1737 toll free at any time to speak with a trained counselor for any reason.
Lifeline: 0800 543 354 or text HELP to 4357
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 / 0508 TAUTOKO (24/7). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or who are concerned about family or friends.
Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757 (24/7) or text 4202
Samaritans: 0800 726 666 (24/7)
Youthline: 0800 376 633 (24/7) or toll free text 234 (8am-12pm), or email [email protected]
What’s Up: online chat (15:00-22:00) or 0800 WHATSUP / 0800 9428 787 helpline (12:00-22:00 weekdays, 15:00-23:00 weekends)
Asian Family Services: 0800 862 342 Monday to Friday 9am to 8pm or SMS 832 Monday to Friday 9am to 5pm. Languages spoken: Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese, Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi and English.
National Support Helpline: 0800 787 254
Healthline: 0800 611 116
Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155
OUTLine: 0800 688 5463 (18:00-21:00)
If it is an emergency and you think you or someone else is in danger, call 111.