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Children’s wellbeing her priority

From hitch-hiking in the 60s to living in Denmark for 11 years, Dianne Saunders has a love of the world, and a love of words. Last week she retired after 21 years as Gisborne Barnardos service manager. She spoke to Sophie Rishworth.

Life's too short to drink bad coffee, says Dianne Saunders. And her parting gift to staff at Barnardos was a coffee machine — perfect for when she pops back to visit them.

Dianne says she feels very privileged to have been at Barnardos for 21 years. At 72, she's worked well past retirement age, which had a bit to do with the mortgage but also her love of people. Now, she is looking forward to reading more books, getting Netflix and catching up on some movies.

Dianne was born in Gisborne to Selwyn and Joy Gane, and her sister is Cheryl Amor. Their Dad was a radiotrician, who brought TV to Gisborne with the installation of the first signal tower on Mount Misery in Matawai in 1964.

She always wanted to work in broadcasting but was too young to be an announcer (in those days women had to be 25, she said). But when Dianne was 16, and halfway through sixth form at Girls' High School, Gisborne's 2XG radio station offered her a receptionist position. The pay wasn't great but Dianne took it. Coincidentally it was one of three positions she was offered that day, even though she had not applied for any of them. It was a different time back then when jobs were plentiful, she said.

After a few years there Dianne decided to go travelling. She and a friend hitch-hiked around the South Island in the late 60s, before Dianne travelled to Spain, where she settled in Barcelona for six months.

Her job there was an au pair to a seven-year-old girl. She would help her young charge with English (who also knew French and Spanish), and accompanied the family on holidays to the South of France.

Dianne returned from Europe in 1971. She thought about going back to 2XG but believes strongly in moving forward so went to Teachers' College, and secured a job at Girls' High School in the mid 70s.

Then the travel bug bit again.

Against the better judgement of her mother (who Dianne described as “livid” at the idea) she took her 14-year-old son Bret out of high school with the intention they would travel around Europe and Britain for a year.

It was a fantastic time for them, she said. Dianne was able to visit friends she had flatted with in the 60s, as well as see Europe again through Bret's eyes.

Their one-year-trip extended to 11 years.

In 1984 Dianne got a job in Copenhagen, Denmark working for the World Health Organisation (WHO), while Bret attended high school.

They rented “the coolest apartment” right across from a canal, and biked everywhere.

A particular moment Dianne remembers from her schooling in Gisborne came full circle while in Denmark. She remembers a teacher being in tears as she told her class about the Berlin Wall being built.

When it came down 28 years later in 1989, Dianne happened to be in Denmark, which borders Germany.

“I found that absolutely overwhelming.”

Another experience in her travels that stood out was when she was in Jerusalem, and walked the steps of the cross.

“I'm not a religious person but that was very emotional.”

Other travel highlights include attending the International Peace Congress, and meeting the late Sonia Davies, New Zealand trade unionist, peace campaigner, and Member of Parliament.

Dianne found herself in her element with her job at WHO in Copenhagen. Her role was proof editor and sub-editor of their publications, and then head of department.

“I've always loved words. My mother said when I was a kid I would often read the dictionary. I'm still the same — every time I come across a word I don't know I look it up.

“I always loved Scrabble because it was a game I could beat my son at.”

Dianne raised Bret on her own, with the support of good friends and family.

Bret went to theatre school in Britain when he was old enough, before returning to Denmark. They moved to a bigger apartment on the fifth floor of their apartment building.

Dianne said she ensured Bret worked to contribute to the rent, and as a 70th birthday present for her mum they flew her over for a 10-week visit.

They are all back living under the same roof again in Dianne's home on Clifford Street, which she bought on her return from Denmark in 1996.

She did, however, find herself back to square one job-wise. Dianne felt she had been out of teaching too long, and the Denmark job had been so unique, so she took up an advertised role as a social worker.

It was through here she first got to know Barnardos. So when the manager left, Dianne got the job and started on April 6, 1999.

She and the administrator started on the same day so even though they were in the deep end, they had each other and were able to put their own stamp on things.

She remembers late night call-outs as an advocate for young people. And that it was often 4pm on a Friday that the dramas started filtering through to their offices at Barnardos —- largely alcohol-induced.

She was also on the TAIN board (Tairawhiti Abuse Intervention Network) which brought social services together to combat family violence, with Dianne representing Barnardos.

She is most proud of the education this group brought to the community about family violence.

“There are still people who don't accept family violence is so widespread.

“We had so many community champions against family violence on TAIN and that's been very successful in conjunction with the ‘It's Not OK' campaign.”

At every turn, it was children's wellbeing that was of utmost importance, she said.

“I had very few hassles with clients. I think it was because I was older. Even the tearaways seemed to have respect for a mother figure.

“Nearly always, the young boys we dealt with would say to me, ‘Thank you for coming'.”

She gave six months notice of her intention to leave Barnardos.

Her last day left her “absolutely stunned” with a surprise send-off when two socially-distanced groups of 10 came to sing her farewell. It was during New Zealand's Alert Level 3 so Dianne had not been expecting anything.

Dianne will continue her voluntary roles on the Board of Supergrans Aotearoa, and the Welfare Civil Defence committee.

When she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011, something she overcame, Dianne remembers telling her son Bret that if this was it, she'd had a great life. Picture by Paul Rickard
Dianne Gane at 2XG in February 1967 where she worked as a receptionist. It was her first job out of school, which she was offered when she was 16 and halfway through the sixth form. Picture from Gisborne Photo News

  1. Jill, Wellington says:

    Great overview of a life lived to the full! (With not all stories shared!!)
    All the very best for a wonderful and well-deserved retirement. The Gisborne community is better off with your unrelenting focus on improving outcomes for tamariki and whanau for the past 20 years.