The Aunties' Jackie Clark and her big-hearted mission to help her 'girls'by Susan Strongman
How the pampered, private schooled daughter of Crown Lynn's founder became a breast-baring battler for women.
The lawn was overgrown and the paint had peeled off the walls years ago. Windows were boarded up. Jackie and her husband had lived without light for the last month or so, because rats had chewed through the wiring. It smelt like dog. Her mother refused to visit.
It sold last year for $1.6 million.
After that, Jackie, 53, bought a cheaper (but much nicer) house in South Auckland and quit her job as a kindergarten teacher so she could wholly dedicate herself to unpaid work for her charity, The Aunties.
As she explains it, The Aunties get stuff from people who don’t need it and give it to people who do - mainly women and children who’ve experienced domestic violence and are staying, or have stayed, at one of two safe houses in South Auckland. Jackie is head auntie.
On a drizzly Tuesday morning, she parks outside my house. The rear windscreen wiper is hanging limp from the back of her car. It makes the little silver hatchback with the personalised plate HAK1S (a nickname given to her by a friend, Haki is her name in te reo Māori,) look like a sulking dog.
The little car has driven about 15,000 kilometres this year - picking things up and dropping them off all around Auckland. Jackie began her deliveries in 2013. She started getting paid for mileage in April. She hopes she will be paid a salary for her work sometime next year.
When I get in, I point out the broken wiper.
“I know,” she says, and resumes a telephone conversation. Jackie is always on her phone.
She’s talking to someone about supermarket vouchers and school uniforms. She ends the call, and immediately makes another.
While she orders skorts and polo shirts from a school I notice the glass of the wing mirror on the passenger side is missing.
Jackie doesn’t seem to care all that much about the way things look, except if it’s for her girls.
Her “girls” is the collective name she gives to the roughly 200 women she works with each year under the umbrella of The Aunties. Sometimes her girls arrive at the refuge with nothing. Sometimes her girls need a top up - warm clothes, a pair of shoes. Sometimes her girls need someone to listen to their story. Her girls get bedding and tampons and toiletries and clothes and food. At Christmas her girls get presents. Sometimes Jackie takes her girls, or their kids out - to the shopping mall, the zoo, the movies, the art gallery.
When her girls leave, they take the stuff with them. Support from The Aunties often continues - food vouchers, clothes, money for cars to be fixed and bills to be paid. Many are on the benefit, but Jackie says it’s never enough when their power bill is overdue and their car needs a warrant and they’re hungry because they’ve made sure their kids have eaten before they do.
Sometimes Jackie puts out the message on social media:
“R arrived 2 wks ago with a car full of stuff but no shoes! She is a size 7 - flats only please.”
“Hey Aunties. I need your money again! We had an unexpected expense today - R's car got fixed and instead of it being $160, it was $380. Really need $5, $10, whatever you can give.”
“I met a lovely woman, and two of her kids today. She has 8 kids, and is currently exiting her situation, so they all need clothes, bedding and towels.”
Other times, she gets the women what they need from a storage unit full of donations from aunties (if you donate something, that makes you an auntie, regardless of gender,) which is paid for with money donated through crowdfunding website Givealittle (if you donate, this also makes you an auntie).
But beware: Jackie doesn’t want your musty clothes, used cosmetics or worn out shoes. Her girls aren’t your waste disposal unit.
“Classist and racist” is one of her favourite insults.
When Middlemore hospital declined to allow a Ronald McDonald House to be built on its premises, she was enraged.
“McD's: a big evil corporation? Yes. But it's also a provider of comfort food. I’ve taken many women to McD's for some of that comfort food,” she tweeted. “On a more than one occasion I’ve bought drive through McD's and women and I have sat in the car and eaten and cried together. I've also bought McDs for kids whose hearts were hurting. Who have left everything familiar in their lives and McDs is a treat.”
When 15-year-old Morrocco Tai died in a police pursuit, driving a stolen car, she tweeted a story headlined ‘Teen killed in Ōtara police chase previously involved in speeding down wrong side of motorway.’
“His name was Morocco. His dad had just moved into a new house. M was excited he had his own bedroom. He was loved.” Jackie wrote.
She rages in real life too.
Earlier this year, at the Women’s March up Queen St, Jackie encountered a men’s rights activist with a megaphone - a one-man protest against the thousands who had gathered in Auckland as part of a global movement to support the rights of women and gender diverse people.
“He wouldn’t shut up,” she says.
She took her top off and bared her breasts at him.
“But even that didn't shut him up.”
Inside an antique wooden cabinet in the lounge of Jackie’s new Manurewa home, a beautiful collection of New Zealand ceramics is on display. On the wall above it is an enormous portrait of her father, Crown Lynn founder Sir Tom Clark, to whom the collection belonged. He looms, with his white hair and sharp grey suit and tie. He’s leaning forward, staring down the lens of the camera, with his elbow resting on his bent knee. Three picture frames sit on top of the cabinet - a watercolour portrait of Jackie that was painted by a friend, a certificate of appreciation from the Albert Eden local board and a motivational quote: “Here’s to strong women. May we know them, may we be them, may we raise them.”
In 1854, Jackie’s great-great-grandfather, English-born Rice Owen Clark, bought land in Hobsonville, north-west Auckland. He started making clay pipes to drain the land on which he had a market garden, (land which Jackie says he bought from local Māori “with money, not guns and blankets”), by wrapping clay around logs and firing them with charcoal.
“He and my great-great-grandmother spoke te reo and lived in a bush hut,” Jackie says. He used their waka to transport his produce down the Waitematā Harbour to sell in Auckland. With others, he set up the Amalgamated Brick and Pipe factory in New Lynn in 1925, and during the Great Depression, pulled his grandson Tom out of King’s College to work there.
During the Second World War, the company was ordered by the Government to produce coffee mugs and plates, as the items could no longer be imported. This was the beginning of Crown Lynn.
Sir Tom married three times. There are nine Clark kids, (“but there are eight now, because one died,” Jackie says.) Her father was 46 when he married her mother, a 23-year-old teacher called Patricia.
In 1964, Jacqueline Clark was born into what she calls “white New Zealand”. She was raised in an egalitarian country that did not have homelessness or any kind of gap between rich and poor. “There was no huge divide,” she says.
“Except there was. I was protected from all that, which seemed ordinary at the time. I didn’t realise that holidaying on yachts wasn’t what everyone did.”
As a small child Jackie was quite “independent”, 77-year-old Lady Patricia says.
“She liked playing on her own quite a lot. She got up early in the morning and - sometimes in her nightie - she would trot off down the road to visit the neighbours.
“She had her step-brother and two step-sisters, but she was really an only child till the age of about four when her brothers came along.” Jackie wasn’t too keen on them. One day, when Lady Patricia was pregnant, she went to get her hair done with Jackie in tow. At the salon, Jackie played with a “gonk” - a soft toy popular in the 1960s. “She said to the lady next to me ‘this is a gonk and it’s pregnant. I am going to jump on it,” her mother recalls.
When she was five, Jackie went to a private primary school. In years seven and eight, she went to Dio. “She didn’t really fit in. Somebody said to me once ‘Trish, you should tell Jackie not to take dolls to school and talk to them.” (“Oh, that was my Barbie,” Jackie says when I retell her the story. “And I hated that school.”)
She was sent off to boarding school in Wellington when she was 12. (I ask the name of the school and in a faux English accent she replies: “Samuel Marsden Collegiate School for the daughters of country gentlemen.”)
Lady Patricia worried about Jackie when she was there. On a school report, she was described as being ‘intransigent’.
In her final year Jackie returned to Auckland and went to Rangitoto College. She explains the reason for the move: “I’ve always been quite stubborn. I had an argument with my friends at boarding school that public schools were better than private schools.”
Jackie was different.
“Her brothers teased her. We all found her a bit hard to handle, really,” Lady Patricia says, before moving into the present tense.
“She’s very outspoken.”
Since the genesis of The Aunties, Lady Patricia’s garage has become a repository of sorts, and Jackie frequently pops round to pick up stuff, visit her mother, and her mother’s dog, Oliver.
Lady Patricia likes to think Jackie’s big heart came from her. She’s been involved with charities since she was 23.
“I’m not quite sure she’s told me how The Aunties really started,” she says, “but I think she’s found her true vocation. She’s very happy.”
She thinks a big part of this is because of the love Jackie receives from the women she works with.
“Her brothers were, well me too, we were all bit tough on her.”
She pauses, then smiles. “I said to one of my friends yesterday - I bet you don't ring your daughter and say ‘where are you?’ And she says ‘I’m at the Prostitutes’ Collective.’
“I am proud of her.”
While Sir Tom was overseas, Lady Patricia took her on a Springbok tour protest march in Mt Eden - one of more than 200 demonstrations around the country, in which more than 150,000 people took part.
The following year, at the University of Auckland, Jackie studied history, learnt about the Treaty of Waitangi and joined the anti-racism movement. “Back in 1982, people like Sue Bradford and Kevin Hague were floating around. I was very politically active.” Jackie worked in the university cafeteria. At break time she would rush into the quad in her uniform smock, to yell about inequality and unfairness - much like she still does now on social media.
At home, there were raging political debates with her National-voting father. In 1985, on a trip to London with him, Jackie stormed out of a restaurant during an argument about apartheid. (Sir Tom died, aged 88, in 2005. Jackie talks about him with fondness. He was described in his obituary as being "big, forceful, direct and outgoing".)
At the end of her degree, she moved to England, then Switzerland, and stayed there until 1990. When she got back, she worked as a tea lady at a furnishings company, and applied for teachers’ college, aged 29.
Her first job was at a kindergarten in Otara, South Auckland, where the gap between rich and poor that she’d learnt about at university was thrown into sharp relief. Her second job was in Owairaka - a refugee settlement area. “I remember one woman - she was Somalian. Her little boy had really bad attendance, and the head teacher spoke to her about it,” Jackie says. The kindergarten had anatomically correct dolls. “They were black, and he was petrified of them. He’d watched his 2-year-old cousin be shot to death in the refugee camp, and so he was terrified of the baby dolls because he thought they were dead babies.” That was why he hasn’t been coming to kindergarten. Jackie cries when she tells me the story.
Jackie spent the last 10 years teaching in Mangere, South Auckland. She came to know the community, the struggles with money and drugs and alcohol and violence. There were parents on meth, there were parents in prison. She watched people battling to survive, stealing because they couldn’t. “I loved that kindergarten,” she says.
She became involved with the refuge by accident.
At the end of each term, the kindergarten was left with piles of kids’ clothing. It bothered her that they were going to waste. “I don’t know what the impulse was but I rang a women’s refuge and said ‘I've got these kids’ clothes, would you like them?’ and the woman I spoke to said ‘yes,’ and she turned up in a van and took the clothes.”
The woman in the van had just started as the refuge’s manager. Jackie told her she was on Facebook and Twitter, and could put the word out if they needed more stuff. There was a pregnant woman at the safe house who needed baby clothes. “I went on Facebook and Twitter and people started sending me stuff.”
Next, the refuge needed a microwave, which Jackie dropped at the safe house herself during her lunch hour.
“I walked in the front door and I met the woman who has since become the very reason for The Aunties...” Jackie says.“She’s a child of my heart, that one. She said to me ‘thank you for being our friend.’ I was startled.”
Jackie has dedicated herself to helping the women who come through its doors since then.
Between them, The Aunties got together “ridiculous amounts” of presents - children in the refuge got about seven each.
After Christmas, Jackie went to the safe house to find hardly anyone staying there. She looked in the pantry and found nothing but expired tins of tomatoes. She decided she’d start getting food. Twitter aunties began sending Countdown deliveries to the refuge. In September 2014, she set up the first Givealittle page. Her original goal was to use spend $660 a month from the donations on groceries. It was “astonishingly” successful, Jackie says.
In August 2015 they started up a second, open-ended Givealittle page. Between then and now, $81,479.97 has been donated, and spent on the women and children of the safe houses.
In the meantime, Jackie continued to “get the girls their shit.” She went to the safe houses once a week and made specific lists of what was needed, which she would then email, Tweet or Facebook the lists out to a growing database of aunties.
...Shoes size 9-8, undies, bras 12D, 2year old baby clothes and baby shoes size5, slippers, body wash, shampoos, conditioner, baby products, bassinet, infant bath…
It was chaotic. Jackie was teaching full time and her workload for the refuge was proliferating.
It was early last year when she reached the point of burnout.
Teaching, a job Jackie once loved with a passion, had become a drag. She was tired of the increasing paperwork. Funding was getting tighter. As the gap between rich and poor grew, she watched as the community she loved suffered.
In about March, she started talking to her husband about making some changes. In June they put their house on the market. It sold in August.
“I felt free, because I knew that I could quit work.”
In September, The Aunties became a registered charity, and was able to pay for a storage unit and Jackie’s mileage. The number of safe houses increased, Jackie took on clients in the community, started helping women in emergency housing, and became involved with NZ Prostitutes’ Collective.
She doesn’t like to think about the amount of money she earned selling her house - she says it makes her feel uncomfortable. In Auckland, property prices have skyrocketed, pushing those who can’t keep up further away from the city's centre, into more deprived suburbs where black mould grows on the inside walls of damp houses, entire families cram into single bedrooms, and kids die of preventable illnesses like asthma and bronchitis.
“I don’t feel guilty about it, but I don’t like to talk about it,” Jackie says. “The thing that has given me this life is the same thing that makes it fucking hard for my girls to get out.”
In November this year, the house at 12 Thorley St went back on the market.
“Better than new!” The advertisement screeches. The house has been completely renovated. No more rat chewed wires, boarded up windows or unmowed lawns. A crumbling brick fence has been replaced with stone masonry. Inside there’s a “theatre room” and a cellar “with bespoke racking for your wine collection.”
She’s still exhausted. She’s working just as much, if not more than she was as a teacher. She never really has a day off - if there aren’t deliveries to make, there’s still a barrage of calls, texts, emails and Facebook messages to deal with. She’s learning to set boundaries, and she tries to say “no” where she can.
“A constant sea of need,” Jackie calls it. She’s realistic about what she’s doing - she hasn’t set out to end family violence.
“It will never stop. All you can do is just do the best you can with what you can. I’m not doing this to make a difference. I’m doing it to be with the people I like being with. They’re women with whom I have commonalities. It’s been really joyous for me.
“I do it because I love it. And I am good at it. And I can.”
Where to get help
Women's Refuge: (0800 733 843)
Are You OK: (0800 456 450)
Shine: 0508 744 633
Victim Support: 0800 650 654
Need to Talk? Free call or text 1737 any time to speak to a trained counsellor, for any reason.
Youthline: 0800 376 633 (24/7) or free text 234 (8am-12am), or email firstname.lastname@example.org
What's Up: online chat (7pm-10pm) or 0800 WHATSUP / 0800 9428 787 children's helpline (1pm-10pm weekdays, 3pm-10pm weekends)
Kidsline (ages 5-18): 0800 543 754 (24/7)
Rural Support Trust Helpline: 0800 787 254
Healthline: 0800 611 116
Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155
If it is an emergency or you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.
This article was originally published by The Wireless.
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