Counsellor worries for clients as service closes

In seven days Michelle Coley went from helping heal damaged relationships to staring down the barrel of unemployment - leaving more than 50 clients stranded.

The Masterton counsellor spent most of this week "packing up" her Waiata House office after her employer, Relationships Aotearoa (RA), said on Tuesday it was shutting its doors.

RA, the country's largest provider of relationship counselling, closed with immediate effect, citing severe financial issues.

Mrs Coley has been a counsellor at the Wairarapa branch of RA since 2013, working with victims and perpetrators of domestic violence, helping couples experiencing marital difficulties, and running Parenting Through Separation programmes.

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She was greeted with the bad news when she arrived at work on Tuesday - and said she "broke down" once it sank in.

"I sat at my computer and cried," Mrs Coley said.

"Only being involved in RA a little over two years, I didn't expect to react that way. It's just really sad."

She said she was aware "things weren't rosy", after hearing the week before RA's board was in emergency meetings with funders.

"But, it was still a shock - one Tuesday RA was there, the next it was gone.

"I used to joke to friends that counsellors never get made redundant because there's always going to be work - I guess not."

While losing her job feels "pretty yuck", Mrs Coley is more concerned about the clients she has built relationships with over two years.

As RA was one of the few services running on a donation basis, she worried about her clients on low incomes.

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"I was seeing solo mums, people with big families, people who had just lost their jobs, and they could only run to about $10 a session.

"They would struggle to afford a private counsellor."

As well, Mrs Coley (Ngati Kahungunu ki Wairarapa) is the only qualified Maori relationship counsellor in Wairarapa - and her absence leaves a gap for clients specifically requesting a Maori provider. "Connecting with their Maoritanga could be very healing for some people.

"I worked with one guy who wasn't into 'Maori stuff' at all - but would later request to say his own karakia."

Mrs Coley, who plans to restart her private counselling business, said she was leaving with some positive memories - particularly of working with violent spouses. "They'd start out eyeballing me, sitting right on the edge of their seats.

"But by the end, they'd be sitting back, and would say, 'Thank you, Michelle, I'm looking forward to next time'.

"I would ask them how they'd want their moko to grow up seeing them - and the penny would always drop."

Seeing warring couples reconcile was also a favourite.

"I had one couple come in, and sit as faraway from each other as possible.

"When they walked out, they were holding hands."