Motivational speaker talks about getting through her worst moments and why life will never lose its joy
MOST nights, Steffi August finds herself in the hallway of her Mount Maunganui home, speaking tenderly to a photo on the wall.
It's an enlarged picture of her and her late husband Fred on their wedding day and the question she most often asks the portrait is "Why?"
August is a motivational speaker, more used to comforting than being comforted, but in the wake of Fred's death in a truck crash earlier this year, she's determined to heed her own advice on positivity.
At 54, she's had a life of hard times and the loss of her soulmate on April 11 is harder than most. But the 1.5m tall, German-born pocket-rocket - who spent most of her life under communist rule - won't let hard times destroy her.
"I see in everything something positive," she says, her German accent still strong after 23 years in her adopted country.
That positivity is what led her to survive regimented life in East Germany, before she emigrated to West Germany before the Berlin Wall came down.
She tried to escape to the West three times but was instead put under covert surveillance by the East German Stasi (secret police).
When she came to New Zealand in 1996, she didn't have a visa and couldn't speak English.
She then moved on from one relationship and also discovered in her 40s that the man she thought was her birth father was not.
She publicly shared her journey for the first time in 2010 during Volunteer Week for Sport Bay of Plenty.
Her 10-minute speech was so well received that it immediately generated 35 other speech bookings. "They loved my story, they loved my energy and it spiralled. Then I joined Toastmasters to get better."
As someone who felt voiceless for so long in Germany, she's had radio and television time in New Zealand, written two books and, last year, was awarded the Brightstar Emerging Speaker of the Year.
On her website, steffiaugust.com, she's pictured in a black dress, wearing a belt inscribed with the words, "Regret Nothing".
As well as sharing her inspirational message, she's a corporate masseuse, while also running coaching workshops called Speak Up with Confidence. For the past year, she's been working with inmates in Waikeria Prison's Te AraTiaTia Drug Treatment Programme, encouraging them to overcome life's challenges.
Everybody makes mistakes, she says.
SHE fusses briefly in the kitchen before serving freshly-squeezed orange and grapefruit juice and a platter of diced fruits. The dining table is already occupied with burning scented candles, flowers in vases, photos, trinkets and a blue bottle of Invictus aftershave.
Beside the living room couch are other items; two bottles of Steinlager Classic inside brown work boots, a set of keys, jandals, a black backpack, two wrapped presents tied with ribbon and an orange Gatorade bottle with a love note scribbled on it in black Sharpie.
Some of these items were collected by August from Fred's truck the day he died. Other items are just treasures that remind her of him - like his favourite jandals that he unashamedly wore with toe socks.
She also has his ashes, which will stay with her in the house until summer (he hated the cold) before being scattered.
August and Fred were married for three years, one month and 25 days (she's precise because she loves numbers).
"The universe really put us together," she says, recalling how she was training for a marathon at the time and everywhere she ran, Fred and his U-Pack Removals furniture truck just happened to turn up.
He called her "sexy". She called him "her favourite husband". He bought her flowers and teddy bears; and they celebrated date night every month on the 16th - their wedding day.
She was supposed to go with him the day of the two-truck crash near Tokoroa but got tied up with work commitments.
She and Fred's front-seat passenger attended a restorative justice conference last week with the employer and the driver of the other vehicle, who will be sentenced on September 11.
The accident happened on a Thursday and three days later, she was meant to fly out to Germany on holiday.
Fred, a golf fanatic, was going to drop her off at the airport, not knowing that when he got home that he'd find two presents from his wife. She'd spent months hunting down Tiger Woods golf tee-shirts. She wrapped them and added stickers: 'I love you' and 'I miss you'.
"They're sitting there," she says, looking at the unwrapped presents in a pile of Fred's things.
"He was my rock and that makes me feel sad but then I come back to my coaching: 'What you think, it's what you feel'."
She and Fred were planning to travel overseas in five years, taking her inspirational speaking to a global audience.
That's still going to happen, she says; yet another sign of the robustness of her incredibly giving heart that's helped her cope with hardship time-and-time again.
Ursula Hurn, August's former business mentor, and a close friend says that attitude is August in a nutshell and friends feel fortunate to be a part of her life.
"That girl has true grit," she says.
"When she feels like she can't carry on, she digs deeper and finds more grit. Her catchphrase is 'give up or get up' and she's not going to give up. I know some days she really wants to but she just forges ahead. She has a strength of character I haven't seen in many people in my life.
"When she feels like she can't carry on, she digs deeper and finds more grit. Her catchphrase is 'give up or get up' and she's not going to give up. I know some days she really wants to but she just forges ahead. She has a strength of character I haven't seen in many people in my life."
"You look at what's happened to her and go 'that's not fair'. Of all the people in the world, that's not the person it should happen to. But she also knows that we're made by the experiences that we go through and the things she has gone through just broadens her relatability to so many more people," Hurn muses.
"I'm determined to make it work," August concedes.
Life behind the Berlin Wall
Being raised in East Germany ultimately laid the foundations for August's bravery.
She came from a loving family but was a rebel. She remembers sitting her truck and trailer licence (she already rode a motorbike) alongside 50 males; her father tut-tutted, disapprovingly.
She eventually found out in her 40s by sheer accident that he was not her birth-father and that she was the result of a one-night stand.
By the time she found out the name of her biological dad - a journey that took nine years - she learned he'd died some years earlier and had likely known nothing about her.
It did, however, bring a half-brother into her life that she still has contact with.
Her family is all back in Germany and none of them want to leave but that was a burning desire she craved under the communist regime.
"Three times I tried to get out but no chance. You would've been shot or put in prison. We just had to wait for permission to leave. We wanted to have a better life and we were so determined," she says of herself and the father of her first-born child, Sally. She says they had both their car and flat bugged and felt isolated from friends.
"They watched so many. We lost our jobs… they treated you as enemies. What we went through was hell."
When the wall came down, she and her partner separated as he wanted to go back to East Germany and she did not.
She went to live in Munich for eight years and met the man who would become her youngest child Max's father, a computer technician and car mechanic who was 16 years older and, unlike her, could speak English.
The pair came to New Zealand together but later broke up.
The only English sentence she could speak was: "My name is Steffi."
That progressed to the first sentence taught to her by Kiwis: "Steffi, take it easy."
She had three months to learn as much as she could to pass the IELTS English test for anyone looking to live, work or study in New Zealand.
"I had vocabularies everywhere... kitchen, toilet. I went to the library and read all the children's books. I was determined. I wanted to succeed."
Words are serious business for August.
Last year, she decided she wanted to work in prisons, having already organised and run men's cooking classes and mental health workshops. She voluntarily put her hand up to speak at Waikeria Prison near Te Awamutu.
Over a four-week block within the Te AraTiaTia Drug Treatment Programme, she helps prisoners find their passion in life - something she says that 99 per cent can't pinpoint at the start of her course.
When it comes to self-belief, she says most rate themselves a five or six out of 10.
"I had hard cases but amazing guys. They made a mistake and they deserve a second chance but we don't do it right in New Zealand. We have to really start thinking from the inside out, not from the outside in."
In many cases the men feel useless, lost, and don't know where to start when they walk out of the prison gates because it's easy to go back, she says. Sixty per cent of prisoners reoffend within two years of being released from jail.
"In every challenge is an opportunity. I had a young guy in there - 20s, drugs, dealing and all that. I told him that every day, he should say to the universe thank you, they caught me'. And he looked at me like: 'What?' and I said: 'Yes, otherwise you'd still be out there doing that s***. This is your second chance. Grab it with both hands'."
She warns prisoners not to talk "kaka" to her - a word Fred (who was Māori) impishly taught her.
No-nonsense August knows that even with a broken heart and devastated soul, life must go on. For all her glory in inspiring others, her most impressive save has and will be of herself.
She's agreed to see a counsellor and is currently biking up to 220km a week to find clarity.
"Instead of crying and crying, I brush my teeth and I go biking."
Next year, she and a friend, who lost her son in a car accident 22 years ago, will walk the 800km Camino de Santiago trail in Spain over four weeks.
"So many people are not happy in life - you're the only person who can change it.
I want to make a difference, otherwise, I would have been in that truck with him and I wouldn't be here anymore… I'm here to make a change and help others."
She focuses on passion, belief, and determination.
"Once you've got it, nothing can stop you. You are unstoppable."