Life’s roller coaster has carried Gina from stardom to the breadline, sparking her passion for feeding the needy

There's a stack of carrier bags at Gina Peiffer's back door bulging with kai-in-the-making.

It's donations of this kind with which Gina pulls off her nightly loaves and fishes act.

Realistically, she's not feeding the biblical 5000, but what she is doing is putting food into the mouths of those hereabouts who rely on Love Soup, the organisation with the "feed the needy" tagline.

Gina is Love Soup's Rotorua's founder-facilitator, now a trustee of the scheme pioneered by her Tokoroa friend Julie King's headline-making free food service.

Advertisement

With homelessness presently grabbing similar media attention, our visit to Gina's topical; our assignment to personalise this Peiffer woman.

Who we find is someone who's gone from stardom to near-starvation, endured tragedy and seriously debilitating illnesses, someone whose heart's as deep as her constant laugh.

Yet this is a person who could be forgiven for having precious little to laugh about, she and husband Elmer have existed for years on her invalid's benefit.

Her mobility's compromised by a dodgy knee, she's had a brain aneurism that triggered a stroke (she can still only read with a magnifying glass), battles Type-2 diabetes; and a rare form of lupus was recently diagnosed.

Surely such a dictionary of medical complaints must have dulled this community trouper's desire to lead the poverty battle from the front? Has it heck.

"We live on the bones of our arse but it's a question of management, juggling, which is why we understand where these people are at."

Related articles:

Included in the "we" is Canadian-born Elmer. They've been married 13 years.

While many dream of being a film star Gina's lived the dream. She was still at school when she played the female lead in Kingi's Story, a gritty, fact-based film initially made for television, but international film festival acclaim led to its movie theatre release.

With her father working at television's Avalon studios ("they were our playground") Gina turned up to audition in school uniform, her head covered.

"I didn't want to get a part on the strength of dad's job... actually I think I got it [lead role] because when I was offered a cigarette I took it, the other girls resisted."

Shunning further stardom - "after Kingi I kept getting offered bad girl parts but I wasn't prepared to do that" - she worked in a Lower Hutt beauty salon then in Wellington Housing Corp's rental division.

Financially savvy, her own home was freehold before she turned 21.

Then tragedy struck. Six months before that big birthday her partner, "my childhood sweetheart since I was 14", was killed.

"He was pushed out the window of a Wellington tavern, died instantly."

She took time out before joining a telephone answering service, two babies followed.

Gina moved into sales consultancy. "I like bringing people into something that's good for them, if I don't believe in something I can't sell it."

She raised four children working full time, her knee gave out after the fourth was born.

"I lived on ACC and my savings for two years because I didn't want to go on the DPB [domestic purposes benefit] but it became essential to raise my kids."

By then she and Elmer had developed an online friendship. "We decided to take a punt, see if what was there online was there in person, he paid for me to go over, I arrived on a Tuesday, we married the following Saturday. I liked him because he made me laugh, he continues to make me smile each day."

With Gina's son at Te Aute College, the couple settled in Hastings, spearheading a horticultural contracting enterprise, diverting youngsters away from the dole.

When the industry nose-dived the Peiffers were on the verge of leaving for Canada when they instead moved to South Waikato to become caregivers for a severely disturbed boy.

"He'd had years of incredible violence, was ADHD, suffered from foetal alcohol syndrome, post traumatic stress disorder, you name it he had it.

"He ran away, CYFS, the police advised us to get out of [town] because he said he was going to come back and shoot us."

Rotorua became their safe haven... of a kind.

"Elmer couldn't find work, not even get an interview at a supermarket, those were tough times, really showing us what it's like to live on the breadline so we decided to create our own work.

"We looked at bringing the Love Soup kaupapa [plan] here, did the research, saw the number of homeless, rough sleepers. I cooked a huge pot of food, chucked it in the van, took it to Kuirau Park."

For two-and-a-half weeks the couple were shunned, the food taken to families known to be in need.

"Then they [the homeless] began to trust us. We were soon feeding 35 out of the back of our truck, started to look for a permanent venue."

Initially it was the Tarewa Rd marae kitchen, now it's a former changing shed cum toilet block in Mataatua St.

Soup's long stopped being their menu's staple.

"I'm incredibly creative with food, substituting whatever's available and repurposing [freezing] it."

Feeding such numbers (anywhere up to 70) fails to faze Gina. "I've always brought home strays, constantly had a house full of kids, cooking for crowds is what I do."

The organisation has mushroomed so rapidly it's now run by a board of trustees teaching life skills and working closely with rental and social agencies.

As a registered probationary agent it deals with those Gina describes as "dancing on the other side of the line".

Finding shelter for the city's homeless is Love Soup's latest commitment. "In two days this week we learnt of eight families, 23 children, on the streets."

Gina's adamant they'll crack it where others have failed. "I learnt long ago there's never not a solution to a problem."



GINA PEIFFER


Born:

Lower Hutt, 1963.

Education: Pomare Primary, Taita Intermediate and College, Hutt Valley Memorial Technical College.

Family: Husband Elmer, three sons, one daughter. "Mokopuna number one's due in November."

Interests: People. "I guess that's why I'm doing what I'm doing, I don't have time for anything else."

On her Love Soup role: "I'm the one who drives the bus."

On her culinary skills: "I'm a vegetarian so I cook by smell, not taste."

Personal philosophy: "Do what I can when I can."