WEEKEND MAGAZINE: Picking up the pieces

She deals with life's traumas on a daily basis and lives her own life to the full. Mount Maunganui Victim Support co-ordinator Claire Montague talks to Julia Holmes about how she colours her world.
The first thing Claire Montague notices when we meet is my bright red pointy shoes. "I love them," she exclaims. "I used to have red shoes. Are they in fashion again?"
Montague is drawn to colour like a magpie to silver. Although dressed entirely in black, there is a flamboyance about her.
She talks animatedly, her diamante, multi-hued earrings swinging and glittering as they catch the light. But it is the rich pallet of her life that colours the room as she tells me how she once partied with sheikhs, toured South Africa with Rolf Harris and shared a sauna with Tom Jones.
Montague, 52, is the Victim Support co-ordinator who runs the new Mount Maunganui office, set up to serve the growing coastal population.
She is one of two co-ordinators in the area. The other, Jacqui Tarawa, is based in Tauranga.
During her four years as a volunteer, she says she has seen so many "situations" that nothing would surprise her but it is her own varied and, at times, troubled life that has equipped her with the skills to take on the role.
Born in Matamata and raised on a dairy farm, Montague started school before she turned five, was at teachers' college by the time she was 16 and graduated as a secondary teacher at the tender age of 19.
"I started school young. It was a really little country school and they needed to keep the numbers up. I was the youngest to be accepted to teachers' college," she recalls.
After teaching for several years she decided to go travelling with friends, the first stop South Africa.

"It was still under white rule then. It was quite a culture shock after being brought up in a small New Zealand country town," she says.
They hired a car and set out on a road trip, camping in places where "white girls were not supposed to go".
Having roughed it for a few months, Montague and her friend Rae Taylor answered an advertisement in the newspaper for a teaching job and their fortunes did an about-turn.
The job was tutoring the two youngest Nolan Sisters, who were touring the country with Rolf Harris. "They wanted one teacher but we managed to convince them two would be much better," she says.
"First we saw the real South Africa, and then we stayed in all the top hotels," she adds.
It was in one of these prestigious hotels that Montague had her encounter with Tom Jones.
She and her friend were relaxing in the sauna when they were asked if they would mind if the Welsh crooner joined them.
"He was really nice. He gave us tickets to his show. All my friends back home thought it was amazing enough that I was touring around with Rolf Harris but that really topped it off. It's my claim to fame," she says, smiling broadly.
When the tour ended, the pair set off for England where Montague worked in a bar for a year before joining Gulf Air as an air hostess.
Based in Bahrain, she took advantage of the tax-free earnings for two years, attending sheikh parties and enjoying the perks of living in a city where it cost more to buy drinking water than to fill a car with petrol.
"It was like living in Disneyland," she says wistfully. "Its different there now."
But she craved her clean, green homeland and at the age of 27 returned to Matamata, swapping her glamorous airline veil and trouser suit for gumboots and a life on the land.
She married a farmer and they had three children - Lauren, 24, a publicist; Kirk, 23, a commerce graduate; and Brooke, 19, a medical student. After 15 years the marriage ran into difficulties and she and her husband parted.
However, it was not long before romance blossomed again for Montague when she was reunited with an old boyfriend from her student days, Graeme Nicholas.
It was just a matter of picking up where they left off.
"We used to go out together 30 years ago when we were students in Hamilton. We hadn't seen each other since," she says of the man she now describes as her "soul mate". "We met up at a reunion of a block of flats. We were both recently single. It was a bit different from being young and single at 18. When we met up we both had three kids," she adds.
A year later Montague's new-found bliss was interrupted when she discovered she had cancer. She underwent an operation and was given the all-clear but, having watched her mother die of cancer at the age of 48, she was considerably shaken.
"It changed my thinking on a lot of things. I don't take my health for granted. A lot of people do," she says.
She went on to work for the Matamata-Piako District Council as a district development officer, then moved to Tauranga for family reasons, commuting for a couple of years before settling in the area permanently.
Falling back on her teaching skills, she spent time relief teaching and running a nannying agency.
It was while relief teaching that she decided to become a Victim Support volunteer, convincing her partner to also sign up.
"It's something I always wanted to do. I've been through a few crises and traumas in my life and I'm really lucky I had support from friends. I know some people don't and that's where Victim Support comes in," she says.
"It's been really good because all the roles I've had ... I used all the skills I learnt along the way. It boils down to people skills and communication," she adds.
Confidentiality prevents Montague from talking about individual cases but she says she finds suicides the most challenging.
"It's not just youth. Many are older. It makes you aware how low people can get ... they can't see any daylight," she says.
Her children always know when she has attended a suicide because she often phones them afterwards and gives them a pep talk.
Victim Support provides a range of free services from contacting burglary victims to supporting the families of murder victims and attending car crashes.
"Every job is different. We offer emotional support and make sure people are safe. We try and reassure them, listen, give them practical help and wait for their own support systems to kick in," Montague says.
Volunteers are provided with counselling and supervision but everyone has their own way of coping, she says.
"I have a jacket," she says pointing to a black and yellow Victim Support fleece hanging on the back of the door. "When I get home I take it off and have a shower. Sometimes I play loud music on the way home, or I go for a walk. It's whatever works for you."
The ocean is a constant source of rejuvenation for Montague, who rejoices that she has sea views from her office and her Welcome Bay home.
She walks around Mauao most lunchtimes, swims in the sea every day, loves body surfing and is a "seafood fanatic".
Last week she travelled to Bluff for the oyster festival, despite having been hospitalised at Easter with neuro-toxic shellfish poisoning after eating some dodgy mussels.
"It's like riding a bike - if you fall off, get back on again," she says.
And in that sentence she seems to have summed up her approach to life.

- Bay of Plenty Times

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