After 17 years at the helm of Auckland’s City Mission, Diane Robertson has decided to step down from the post to ‘make the most of life’.

Dame Diane Robertson's early years weren't unlike many of her clients. Raised in a blended family, with parents who drank regularly, who had little money and made Christmas a regular disappointment, she wasn't expected to amount to much.

"We were socially excluded, we were picked on at school and as a whole family of children deemed we would never really succeed in life."

As a child she lived in "perpetual hope" that at least this Christmas would be better than the last. "Every Christmas I'd believe it was going to be a good Christmas, we'd get presents and everything would be fine."

It never was.

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But as a "natural rebel" Dame Diane decided not to follow this path of misfortune set out for her.

Instead she chose to become a teacher, before becoming a counsellor; she involved herself in youth and volunteer work and in 1998 took on the role as the Auckland City Missioner - the first woman and the first outside the clergy to hold the post.

This year her hard work was recognised in the Queen's Birthday Honours where she was made a Dame Companion to the New Zealand Order of Merit.

While she spoke matter-of-factly about her childhood, her early years gave her a bent towards helping others.

"I have a strong sense of social justice," she said. "I grew up like many of my clients, I'm passionate about making life better for people."

Despite this she'd never planned on becoming a social advocate.

"I always wanted to become a mechanic or a vet. I often joke I still am, I fix things and try to make things better."

Indeed, in her role as Auckland City Missioner she was a woman of all trades, doing fundraising work, networking, acting as a spokesperson, balancing the books and managing staff and volunteers.

Messages of farewell

Dame Diane has led the Auckland City Mission through a period of unprecedented growth and service to Auckland communities and the board wishes to thank her for her commitment and leadership during this extended period.

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She is held in great respect and has done her work, with the most marginalised, with great courage. She's a great woman and leaves a good legacy for others to run with now.

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Despite the many challenges of the social sector, Dame Diane remains just as passionate and hopeful that she's made a difference.

"I think I have made a difference by setting up services that help people, in terms of speaking out for those that might not otherwise have been spoken for."

Success wasn't always so transparent in the organisation.

"The highest number of times someone came through the detox centre was 45 times," she said. "But each time they came through they lasted a little longer, their health was a little better, they felt a little more hopeful about life and you know you made a difference at that moment."

She said it wasn't about fixing everything.

"You don't work because you think you are going to make someone's life perfect - it doesn't happen - but you can make a significant difference just by being pleasant."

The decision to step down has not been spurred on by a lack of love for the job - if anything it sounds like she'll end up doing much the same.

"I tell everybody that I'm going to take a bit of time out, I'm not sure that that's actually the truth, I think probably I'll just go leaping into something else."

However, the death of a colleague at a young age this year and a desire to focus on slightly smaller projects have led to her calling it a day.

Despite making her decision public yesterday, Dame Diane planned to see Christmas out the same way she has every year for the best part of two decades, helping feed those less fortunate at the annual Auckland City Mission Christmas lunch.