A life full of adventures

By Laurel Stowell

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LIFE LESS ORDINARY: Carmel Hurdle  Photo/Stuart Munro
LIFE LESS ORDINARY: Carmel Hurdle Photo/Stuart Munro

Pruning 300 pine trees, decades of social work, teaching in Africa and Samoa, writing in Spain, Marrakesh and Washington DC, cooking Christmas dinner on a yacht, training a heading dog, publishing a novel, undertaking a national survey on sexual abuse and organising conferences at Flock House.

You could say Carmel Hurdle has had a full life.

At 61 she's planning more adventures " more writing and more trips to Africa.

Carmel gave a talk in the Sisters of St Joseph's This I Believe series earlier this year. Her current part-time job is pastoral care for the ageing sisters. Members of their order taught at her first school, St Joseph's in Feilding, so she feels she's come full circle.

One of the themes of the talk was the maxims she lives by.

One is that no experience is wasted " each is a building block.

Another is it's good to get out of your comfort zone and be challenged.

And another is to listen to your inner voice and follow your heart.

Carmel has spent 37 years as a social worker, and says it's demanding work. After one 12-year stint it took her five years to recover.

Some things stand out, and she recounted her two saddest days as a social worker.

One was the moment a five-year-old girl she had removed from a foster home turned to her in the car, tears rolling down her cheeks, and said "Will you be my mummy?"

Carmel had been working with the girl since she was about three. She had been in a lot of foster placements, her latest with an experienced foster mother. The mother had been making a wedding dress for her daughter, who was getting married. The dress was finished, except for the hem.

When the little girl cut up the dress days out from the wedding it was too much for the foster mother, who asked for her to go. Carmel picked her up, with her belongings in two black plastic bags.

Carmel heard more about her later, when the girl was an adult known to Child Youth and Family for the poor care she gave her own child.

The other day was at the other end of a human life. As an oncology social worker Carmel took a woman dying of cancer to a Public Trust office to settle her will. The woman had been having chemotherapy and had lost her hair. The cancer had also affected one of her eyes.

She wore a wig and sunglasses to the appointment. During the discussion the woman realised what she wanted to leave amounted to almost nothing, though she had worked hard all her life.

She started to cry, went to take her glasses off and her wig slipped off and fell to the floor.

"Her dignity, everything, was just gone. She sat there and sobbed, her absolute vulnerability laid bare."

The woman died not long after that. Carmel was brought up in Feilding and Hastings, the second child of five in a Catholic family. She grew up with daily stories about saints helping the poor. Sometimes she stayed with her aunt, a nun in a New Plymouth convent, and helped in its kitchen.

Her father, Jim, was a member of St Vincent de Paul. He gave food parcels to poor families and he used to act as pall bearer and attended Mass for people with no family to bury them.

After a Catholic education, some of it at Tenison College in Hastings, Carmel trained as a teacher. But what she really wanted was to be a social worker.

"The only ways in back then were teacher or nurse," she said.

Her first year teaching was in Taupo, where she had chilblains for the only time in her adult life. The next year she volunteered to teach in Western Samoa. She and others lived in basic accommodation, with a shared bathroom and no hot water on tap. She taught music. Walking through the village near Apia she would hear the girls singing songs she had taught them.

She didn't want to be a teacher. Back in New Zealand in 1979 she got the job of social work assistant in Hastings. By the end of 12 years she was running a team and using her teaching skills to train students. She got a Diploma in Social Work from Victoria University along the way.

For the diploma she had to write a research paper. During her time as social worker she had met a lot of women who had been sexually abused. She decided to research why they didn't get help.

The New Zealand Women's Weekly magazine published her three-page questionnaire for women to fill out and return.

"I got over 300 replies. Some women had never told anybody about the sexual abuse before and had written pages and pages. Most gave their names and were happy for me to respond."

She was on a placement at the Wellington Rape Crisis Centre and replied to every woman who had given her address, staying up until 2am and 3am to write to them.

The magazine did a follow-up item on her research, she appeared on television and met the chief executive of the Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC). ACC was in the process of writing brochures for sexual assault survivors, and took her research into account.

Carmel needed a break. She decided to take a year's leave without pay and get out of the city. She advertised in a farming magazine for work in country houses, gardens or on farms, in return for board and pocket money. She got 20 replies, mainly from single men, and ended up at Akitio Beach.

She earned money by picking up agar seaweed to sell, looking after a preschool child, pruning 300 pine trees and doing housework.

"It was a pretty carefree year. I lived very simply. It was a wonderful break."

It wasn't long enough. She bought the beach bach next door, then met a man and moved to his farm. It was an hour inland from Wairoa and across three cattlestops. There she learned to artificially inseminate cows and trained a heading dog, as well as doing some teaching.

But she preferred living on her own. Her next job was conference co-ordinator at Flock House, which could accommodate 500.

"I had to turn my hand to all sorts of things, including making drapes for two rooms and finding a lost wedding ring."

After that the writing side of Carmel's life began, with a one-year fulltime creative writing course at Whitireia Polytechnic. She won prizes in short story competitions and had stories read on radio.

Back in social work she looked after cancer patients for Whanganui District Health Board, and got her passenger licence in order to do some work for Driving Miss Daisy.

She took time out to carry on writing in Morocco, Spain, Raglan and the black suburb of Mount Rainier in Washington DC. The drug store on the corner there was bulletproof from floor to ceiling, with a gap to exchange money and goods.

"Sometimes I was the only white person on the bus home at night," she said.

Her novel, Husbandry for the Single Woman, was launched in 2013.

Since then she has taken on gentler work. But in 2013 she also did a six-week self-funded voluntary stint in Africa for the Open Home Foundation International, teaching child care and protection in Zambia, Uganda, and post-genocide Rwanda.

"Memorials and graveyards were everywhere you went," she said.

She spent one night in an old lady's hut, with a maize field as a toilet.

"You were out in the middle of nowhere - no tourist ever goes there - sleeping in a mud hut. You took the risk, but those are the things you remember."

Now back in her comfortable Whanganui house, Carmel is planning more visits to Africa for the foundation - to Zambia, Uganda and Rwanda in particular.

In between all this she's also been to Machu Picchu in Peru, and to Saudi Arabia, New York City, Nepal after the earthquake last year, taken a car tour around Ireland and done a canal boat trip on the English-Welsh border. She still has African and Spanish stories to publish.

There's been lots of family stuff too - including care for her ageing parents. And although Carmel never had children, she has a particularly close relationship with a niece who lived with her for six years. One of her favourite memories is the day her 84-year-old Uncle Des married for the first time, with her 89-year-old father the best man. She had to help one of them with his comb-over hairstyle.

"I had the job of getting them both to church at the right time. It's a day I will never forget."

The marriage was a love match, and the two had six wonderful years together - just the thing to light Carmel's candle.

"The greatest fulfillment comes from caring for others and making someone's life a little better," she says - the final and most important of her maxims.

- Wanganui Chronicle

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