New Zealander of the Year 2010: Emma Woods

By Jarrod Booker

When we considered this year's candidates for New Zealander of the Year, Emma Woods was the clear winner. Reader feedback strongly backed staff nominations in favour of the Christchurch woman whose remarkable act of forgiveness stunned the nation.

'It's never really seemed like a good use of energy to be angry with Ashley, because I knew that that wasn't going to change anything.' - Emma Woods. Photo / Simon Baker
'It's never really seemed like a good use of energy to be angry with Ashley, because I knew that that wasn't going to change anything.' - Emma Woods. Photo / Simon Baker

Emma Woods is a little uncomfortable being held up as a shining example of compassion.

"Because I don't really feel like I'm that different from any of the other people I am spending time with," says the Christchurch mother, whose act of forgiving her son's killer has drawn widespread praise and some disbelief.

"It's a little overwhelming to be in that position, I guess."

However she views it, there is no doubt that Mrs Woods, 37, has proven inspirational.

After her son Nayan, 4, was killed in front of her by an out-of-control teenage motorist driving his modified car on to the footpath in Christchurch in May, the reaction we had come to expect from other tragedies was grief-fuelled anger and cries for harsh penalties.

There was none of that from Mrs Woods.

Instead, she took the time to get to know the driver, Ashley Austin, 18, accepted he had made a mistake, told him to not let it ruin his life, urged a judge not to send him to prison and hugged him when he was distraught.

It is these remarkable acts, in the face of the greatest loss a mother could face, that make Mrs Woods the Herald New Zealander of the Year.

Canadian-born Mrs Woods, now a permanent New Zealand resident, appreciates it is hard for some to understand how she could forgive.

"I do it too. I read things in the paper and I think 'I just don't understand that at all'. I think it's just human nature. But I guess when you're in it, you behave in ways you might not have expected yourself to. It's probably harder on the outside to look in, but that's just what has been right for us."

There was a perception, she says, that the forgiveness was an immediate reaction from her and her husband Duncan.

"But that wasn't the case. I think the forgiveness is probably done over the course of quite a few months. Just getting to know [Austin] and his family better, and to see the tragedy for everybody I guess.

"I think Duncan and I both held really similar views and we were both raised in really similar ways by quite loving and intelligent families that were able to teach us to try to look at the wider picture. There's definitely been anger towards the situation and to circumstances around the situation. But it's never really seemed like a good use of energy to be angry with Ashley, because I knew that that wasn't going to change anything."

Even her other son, Jacob, 6 - when told that Austin might go to jail for Nayan's death - questioned why that should happen when it was an accident.

Austin ended up with a sentence of community detention and community work for dangerous driving that killed Nayan, and injured Jacob and Mrs Woods.

The key for Mrs Woods was learning who Austin was, "to know if this was just a random accident or it was something that had been building.

"If I had heard that he was going out every night or having a good time, or his life was just carrying on as usual then, yeah, there would have been anger at that point. But that's not the case."

Austin and his mother Brenda declined to be part of this story. But when asked about the character of Mrs Woods, Brenda Austin said: "People who have followed the case have seen what type of person she is".

Psychologist Sara Chatwin said Mrs Woods' carefully considered, rational response to her loss spoke volumes about the person she is.

"It is a very rare quality when somebody can look at a devastating situation like that from the other person's perspective."

However everyone responded differently to tragedy, and there was no right or wrong way, Ms Chatwin said.

"It is really fair to say that everybody has to grieve and has to respond in the way that comes to them naturally, or the way that they see fit."

Mrs Woods said Nayan was still in her thoughts "all day and every day". She has to keep reminding herself that he is not around.

Christmas would be a tough time without Nayan there to make gingerbread houses with her. There was no Christmas tree this year, but it would still be made a special Christmas for Jacob.

Jacob used to write notes to his brother almost daily, which would usually read: 'To Nayan, Love Jacob'.

"[Jacob] would go and put it in the mailbox and then he would come back in and say 'Nayan, the postie's come', and Nayan would get all excited and he would run out there and see the letter that Jacob had written to him."

Nayan will be remembered as gentle and kind, with a good sense of humour.

"He really loved animals. He was always so excited when he saw the first monarch [butterflies] coming back. He was pretty scientifically minded too. He was really interested to know how things worked, [like] how the electricity got into the light bulbs. He got on well with other kids.

"He was just a lot of fun to be around."

WHAT READERS SAID

This is not a person who has achieved greatness in sport, politics, business, etc. She is, in my view, a quintessential Kiwi, displaying that most rare of traits these days ... forgiveness.
David Conroy

Emma is just one of us doing what few of us could do - making a difference to others lives despite the huge tragedy she faced herself.
Cherie Moran

We cannot go past Emma Woods. Rather than hold on to anger and bitterness she has elected to deal with her tragedy in a dignified and compassionate way. This does not make her loss any the less - but her approach is one which gives us all hope for a better community.
David and Lisa Parker

The award must go to Emma Woods. She has shown qualities that we don't see a lot of these days, including dignity, selflessness,, compassion, and patience. We could all learn so much from her.
Lorraine

NEW ZEALANDER OF THE YEAR FINALISTS

* Ryan Nelsen - All Whites captain

* Dr Ingrid Visser - Marine scientist

* Robyn Malcolm - Actress

* Sir Edmund Thomas - Retired Judge

* Tony Kokshoorn - Greymouth Mayor

* Sir Anand Satyanand - Govenor-General

* Leslie Elliot - Women's safety campaigner

* Dave Jenkins - SurfAid founder

* Doug Sellman - Alcohol campaigner

* Suresh Patel - Christchurch earthquake hero

PAST WINNERS

* 2009: Lenny Holmwood, who saved two policemen shot by Napier gunman Jan Molenaar.

* 2008: Austin Hemmings, slain as he helped a woman being attacked; Tony McClean, who drowned trying to save students trapped by floodwaters.

* 2007: Louise Nicholas, campaigner.

* 2006: Kevin Brady, Auditor-General; Paula Rebstock, Commerce Commission chairwoman.

* 2005: Jock Hobbs, key Rugby World Cup figure.

* 2004: Dr Peter Gluckman, scientist.

* 2003: Michael King, author.

* 2002: Cliff Jones, police officer.

* 2001: Peter Jackson, film-maker.

* 2000: Rob Waddell, Olympic gold medallist, Lucy Lawless, actor.

* 1999: Michael Joseph Savage, Prime Minister during the 1930s Great Depression (New Zealander of the Century).

* 1996-1998: No awards made.

* 1995: Sir Peter Blake, yachtsman.

* 1994: Aucklanders, for enduring that year's water crisis.

* 1993: Jane Campion, film-maker.

* 1992: David Shearer and Anuschka Meyer, Somalian aid workers.

* 1991: Dame Malvina Major, opera singer.

- NZ Herald

Your views

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf04 at 23 Dec 2014 16:16:44 Processing Time: 298ms