No one had a bigger heart than Gwen Kirkwood
Gwen Kirkwood always gave credit to the people of Matamata – a town with a huge heart for people with intellectual disabilities. But the truth was that no one had a bigger heart than Gwen herself.
In 2008 Gwen turned 80 and wondered if it was time to hand over some of her responsibilities with the IHC Matamata Area Committee. By then she had been volunteering for 39 years. Gwen said: “I often thought, when I get to 80 I will need to give up and let someone else take over, but I will go on while I can contribute. I will perhaps fade away before I pull out.”
She never did pull out. Gwen died in January this year, just short of her 95th birthday. As recently as September last year she drove to the IHC Waikato South Association Annual General Meeting.
“Gwen parked as close to the building as possible and independently, with the aid of only her walking stick, joined the group,” says Association Chair Annette Davidson. “The people we support were so thrilled to see her, as she was to see them. The only difficulty came when after the meeting Gwen was ready to go home. All the IHC vans had parked behind and beside her little car – she was totally hemmed in. Gwen said she was happy to wait in the car, so this lovely lady waited for quite some time until the drivers of each van could be located.”
Annette says Gwen dedicated herself to many organisations. “It just wasn’t about all that she did – which was extraordinary – but it was who she was, her personal qualities. She was so full of compassion, kindness and gentleness, which was reflected in her love and caring concern for other people.”
Gwen’s daughter Wendy recalls growing up around the ‘IHC family’. “Mum would go to the centre every day, sometimes twice, do nearly all-nighters for the bake sales, go to the IHC balls, go on working bees, organise and count up for the appeals, go to the meetings, type up the minutes on her portable typewriter. She would sometimes get me to go down and help.
“She avoided the limelight and always redirected praise to others. Dad would often grumble that if he had ‘put Mum to work in a real job’ we would have been millionaires.He would comment that Mum was never home, but we knew he was proud of her.”
Despite her many attempts to deflect praise, Gwen was honoured by the Crown – she received a Queen’s Service Medal in 1996. She was honoured by IHC – she was Patron and Life Member of the IHC Waikato South Association. She was honoured by the town – in 2012 she was awarded the Paul Harris Fellow Award by the Matamata Rotary Club for outstanding service to Matamata for more than 60 years, and in 2017 received the Margarette Golding Award from Inner Wheel International.
From 1969 until 1998 Gwen was secretary of the area committee. She continued as treasurer and correspondence secretary until 2017, when the committee was integrated with the IHC Waikato South Association. She joined during a time of intensive activity. The town had got behind a Matamata Lions Club project to build an IHC pre-school in Station Road. The building cost $16,500 and the Lions raised $7800 of that. Forty-five local tradesmen donated their time over several months. The pre-school opened in 1970 and the building is still used by IDEA Services.
Gwen and her husband Jack epitomised the IHC/Lions Club partnership. Jack was a member of the club until his death in 2012. The Lions supported the IHC Annual Appeal, and the annual Lions/IHC Golf Tournament raised funds for 50 years.
Gwen wrote hundreds of cards on behalf of IHC. She wrote a personal thank-you to every volunteer who helped at the street stall and Opportunity Shop, and letters to all the schools that provided helpers for the Annual Appeal, to the Lions Club for transport, to bank tellers who helped with the count, and to rural coordinators. Gwen ran the IHC door-knock appeal for 37 years. She also organised the IHC volunteers at the town’s Opportunity Shop and the annual street stall.
When IHC set up its Keypoints services monitoring system in the late 1990s, Gwen visited IHC facilities in Matamata, Morrinsville, Pūtāruru and Tokoroa.
“Behind that was a strong determination that people in our Matamata community were included and supported,” says Christine Lee, a long-time fellow IHC volunteer and IHC New Zealand Life Member. “For Gwen, it was a quiet ongoing thing in the way that she lived. To have a strong voice, you don’t always need a loud voice.”
Gwen and Jack lost their first two children, Peter at 15 months and Ann at 18 months, due to a brain condition. Gwen and Jack did not say much about their own experience, only that it made them very concerned about people who had disabilities.
Gwen said in a 2008 interview, “My main interest is in the people themselves and their quality of life. Are we enhancing it, are we helping them, are we doing all we can to give them a better quality of life and to be involved in the community?”
Gwen’s support of her community wasn’t confined to IHC. She said, “In life, you have a commitment to your marriage, to your children, to your church.” She was a member of St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Matamata, serving on the church’s board of managers for 40 years – and on the Association of Presbyterian Women for 60 years.
Gwen is survived by her son Robert and Felipa, and her daughter Wendy and Selwyn. She was grandma to Peter, Ruby, Trent, Jack and Sasha, and great grandma to Beau.
Caption: Gwen and Isabel Meta celebrate IHC’s 70th birthday in 2019.