Christmas in July at St Margaret's - a personal perspective

In this article, Edwin Zeng, a first-year College Member provides a personal perspective of the College's recent Mid-winter Christmas Dinner.

Bon-bons, fruit pudding, and ornaments are typical sights for your heartwarming Christmas festive season - but perhaps not so much in July.

Still, in endearing esoteric fashion, St Margaret’s College had a special mid-winter Christmas dinner last Sunday, on the 15th, celebrating the spirit of joyfulness and giving. With good food and drink (not alcohol!) served, we were even luckier to have special guests dine with us, and share their stories.

Very notable was the return of Prof Tony Binns, who, nine weeks earlier, had discussed his experience in the poor, little known country of Sierra Leone, and particularly in the little village of Kayima, where 2000 people reside. Here, people may make less than $200 a year, numbers inconceivable to students born in first world countries. Poverty abounds here, with low life expectancy, inadequate conditions and healthcare. In particular, a small clinic in Kayima equipped with rudimentary medical supplies is the only health facility for the locality and in dire need of funding to help support the population. And so, the Kayima 1x9 Challenge was birthed, for every member of the college to save $1 a week for nine weeks, and to donate to those less fortunate than us.

On this special eve was the presentation of a cheque in excess of $5000 as a result of the generous efforts of people in the College. For a country where many of the citizens live below a $2/day poverty line, $5000 is of immense value, and Prof Binns has promised to keep the College updated about clinic developments in Kayima in the months to come. To have such a special relationship (spanning many decades) with a community on another continent, even to the point of being granted an honourary chieftainship (he wore his special chief’s clothing to the special evening), is something that can be cherished and appreciated by all members of the College.

In addition to that, it was our privilege and pleasure to have Robbie Francis speak to us of her journey - from being born without a left leg, to learning to live with her disability and continually develop herself in other ways. Her ‘Lucy’ leg - as she calls it - made her feel different, isolated, and struggle throughout her teenage years to appreciate herself. But it is through her determination, and a tribute to the mentality that drives her, to face the constant haunting of ‘Why me?’ and ‘come out’ to the world with her disability - this is me, my Lucy leg is a part of me, and it makes me unique. And so was her first challenge to the audience, learn to live with Lucy.

Mexico. Maybe for most of us reading, and listening, a country far across the globe is not particularly relevant or impactful on our lives. For Robbie, however, under an internship, she traveled and saw first-hand the appalling conditions people with disabilities have to live in. These were people that, may be ‘similar’ to her, may even have been her, had she been born in a different country, and not been afforded the opportunities she has in New Zealand. As she stressed with photos of inhumane conditions - we could only see, and still look away, walk out. For her, she ‘could see, smell and feel’ the horrors of the places she’d been. There are so many things in life that we are blessed to have - many not as the result of our own doing. To be able to empathise, and act on it is our responsibility. Reach your hand out to the people around us, people like you. Choose to help one person at a time and always start with the person nearest you.

The most dangerous words are ‘It’s always been done that way.’ Just because it is tradition, does not mean it is the right thing to do. And so, if something can be improved, choose to do things differently. Quoting Brooke Fraser, ‘now that you have seen, you are responsible’, she took action and co-founded The Lucy Foundation, a ‘social enterprise working in collaboration with local communities to develop a culture of disability inclusiveness through environmentally, economically and ethically sustainable trade.’ Their first initiative was (quite fittingly) based in Mexico, where the production and export of coffee to New Zealand was used to help foster a culture of disability inclusiveness.

For Robbie, submerged in the daunting experience of her first internship, she could never quite look away - and so actively made choices to improve the world around her. It is no wonder that she is showered with invitations to speak and accolades - Attitude Entrepreneur of the Year 2017 among them. Despite this, she continues to push herself and be involved in ‘helping the people near her’ - as an advisor (in an expert reference group) of the NZ government on the 2016-2026 Disability Strategy, as a businesswoman, as a support worker, and as herself - someone who once struggled to accept her ‘Lucy’.

Everyone has their own ‘Lucy’. Something that others can’t see but sits besides you with every step. It is how we deal with it that shows who we truly are - to accept our weaknesses and shortcomings, and strive to be the best version of ourselves everyday. Within the speech she surmised that, ‘196 days have passed in 2018. 169 remain.’ And to finish, ‘tomorrow is the first day of the rest of 2018, how are you going to choose to live it?’ Thank you Robbie Francis, for an inspirational and awe-inspiring speech. The College is honoured to have had you here.

Especially for young students, it is almost crazy - to be quite colloquial - at how varied the lives have been for our speakers and guests. To have had Professor Binns and Robbie Francis present, showcasing their travels and tribulations, then making a difference of their own choosing in ways that is not just rousing, but lends to an almost pensive mood, and we are thankful for their meaningful address. Still, for that one night, we celebrate a very special Christmas, with heads held high and hearts lifted.

Posted: Wednesday July 18, 2018