IN the 2000’s gym owner and instructor Chris Miller dedicated two hours each day to work alongside Vanessa Lowndes Centre (VLC) whānau.
He loved it - but never dreamed it would become his life’s work.
This year, Chris was acknowledged for his 20 years of commitment as a beloved Vanessa VLC tutor. He cherishes the friendships and memories he’s made with staff and whānau and says, “there’s something about this job that makes you want to come back each day and help them out.”
Chris grew up on a Matawai farm then worked as a mechanic at Ford Motors. He went on to own automotive repair businesses and then Gisborne City Gym. While a gym owner (and later a gym instructor with new owners YMCA) he taught whānau engineering skills at VLC.
“A friend asked me, and because the gym could be quiet in the afternoons, it was something constructive for me to do,” remembers Chris.
VLC builds confidence and prepares people living with mental, physical, or intellectual disabilities for employment. Chris helped whānau fabricate handrails, fix broken appliances, and make a steel trailer cover. Over time, Chris’s small job evolved, and he left the YMCA to work full-time at VLC.
Chris is a natural mentor and coach. He works outside as much as he can, taking the lead in community gardening projects, driving the VLC bus to events and activities, and helping whānau exercise.
The whānau delights and inspires him every day. Chris was thrilled when former member Jess Kirwan earned her driver’s licence. “I gave her lessons, but her eventual success – that was all her.” On a walk recently, BJ Johnston announced he could see Tuamoto Island. Chris was chuffed to see whānau taking on board the landmarks and lessons he'd been sharing.
Over the years, Chris has become a trusted confidant for some of the group. Whānau bring him questions and he does his best to support them with practical solutions and good life advice. “Sometimes I feel like a counsellor as people talk to me about their trials and tribulations.”
Ricky Brooking, Ngāti Porou, 44, has been coming to the VLC for over 20 years, and says Chris is an all-round good guy. “He’s always good to people, always supportive, he’s just a wicked person. He comes with cool stuff to do so we never know where we will end up.”
Turanga Health chief executive Reweti Ropiha says Chris has a heart of gold. “He’s brought his own experiences to the role and that’s helped accelerate whānau independence and get them out into the big wide world.”
Chris is a Turanga Health handyman and assists with the vehicle fleet. But it’s his work with whānau he’s most passionate about. “I think the programme we run is bloody awesome and I know parents and caregivers value it. They know their family members are safe and that they are well-looked after and supported. It’s a privilege to be part of it.”
Outside of work Chris, now 65, is a talented sportsman. He played club rugby for Marist and Rangatira, toured with the New Zealand Marist Colts in the 1970’s, and played for Poverty Bay Under 21s. He was Waerenga-A-Hika Squash Club champion three times and served 19 years on its committee, 14 of them as president. Ten years ago, Chris was made a Life Member. He’s also successfully dabbled in multisport, golf, harriers, and cycling. Chris and partner Raewyn are parents to five grown children and nine grandchildren – a couple of whom he helps coach in touch rugby. Chris still fixes vehicles and can often be found four-wheel driving or at the speedway.
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