Whakahawera Rere Kite Pakanga Kerr, a big man who leaves behind a massive legacy in iwi health, passed away on Sunday 21 May, 2023, aged 82.
Known as Libby – after his uncle was wounded in Libya on the day of his birth in 1941 – a quarter of a century of service made him a cherished member of Turanga Health.
Turanga Health is an iwi health provider and general practice with 95 staff including one GP, 19 nurses, and 58 kaiāwhina, including many who can vaccinate. Staff come from many walks of life and backgrounds, helping manage the health care needs of whānau in their own homes or community settings. Turanga Health was central to mobilising services and vaccinating this region’s population during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Turanga Health chief executive Reweti Ropiha says Libby made his mark from when he started in 1999. He was someone who could work with older males and walk their health journey alongside them. Libby became a confidant and gave tāne confidence. “His life experiences ensured he had a lens on the world that informed his work for Turanga Health, and in turn, Turanga Health’s approach for this region.” As well as serving as kaumātua, he also spent six years overseeing the Vanessa Lowndes Centre for whānau with physical and or mental health issues, and was a mentor for a young Reweti Ropiha. He worked for the organisation until this year.
Libby, Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Porou, Rongowhakaata, Ngai Tāmanuhiri, Te Aitanga a Māhaki, Tūhoe, spent his early work life contributing to the region’s primary industries. He plucked tobacco leaves, loaded maize cribs, picked fruit, and butchered meat in the freezing works. In 1985 he had become a security guard at New Zealand's newest health facility, Gisborne Hospital, where he saw things he says, “were both good and bad”. On the “good” side, he enjoyed spending time in Ward 11, talking and interacting with patients. On the “bad”, he often felt tangata whaiora (people seeking health) were not treated with the care and consideration they deserved.
With that as his driving force, Libby's redundancy some years later was turned into a positive when he used his experiences to work with the Health and Disability Commission. Then, through Turanga Health, Libby committed himself to doing what was right in Turanganui-a-Kiwa. Whether it be a phone call, kanohi ki te kanohi contact, or something more subtle, Libby called upon an extended breadth of relationships to help Turanga Health navigate the early days of delivering its services. Reweti says Libby’s drive to help whānau intensified during times of trial. Be it earthquakes, floods, pandemics, or power outages, Libby demanded that whānau continue to be supported. “There was no compromise on this. He would say we can do it in real time, open the doors as quickly as possible.”
Turanga Health’s whānau approach to health care owes a lot to Libby. When designing new health programmes, population health kaiwhakahaere Dallas Poi says Libby helped her engage with a wide variety of community leaders. “He was there as a backstop, a guide, and gave me insights on who I needed to go to.” He always pushed her to broaden the organisation’s horizons. Why stop at that marae and that school? “As the years went by, I further understood the importance of Papa Libby and the role he played.”
Libby’s Turanga Health office was small but central. His beloved country music would blast loudly from the tiny room, and despite possessing no real singing ability, he would belt out Merle Haggard tunes while sipping coffee from a huge mug. Nearby administrative staff, including Dallas, would get hōhā (exasperated), but his cheeky smile would always win them over. In the last few years Dallas and Libby shared a secret supply of biscuits in his office drawer. Dallas would sneak biscuits when he wasn’t there. Later, with mock surprise he would complain to Dallas that a kiore (rat) had been stealing the stash.
Radio announcer and Turanga Health instructor Walter ‘The Wiz’ Walsh met Libby when he was a Te Runanga o Turanganui a Kiwa trustee overseeing iwi radio station Te Kakano. Later, when he was a Turanga FM breakfast announcer, Walter would take off-air song requests from Libby. “We nicknamed him Maunga Teitei (high mountain) so nobody would know it was him jumping the queue.”
Libby never backed away from responsibility. He loved his whakapapa, was a unionist and a retired Justice of the Peace. He pushed for Turanga Health staff to study waiata and insisted on having iwi taonga in the office so staff remembered who their mahi was for. He wasn’t afraid to speak his mind and if he was frustrated the odd bit of kangakanga (cussing) could slip out.
Throughout the years Libby was a passionate family man . . . he and his wife of more than 55 years, Mereaira, have eight children, 12 grandchildren, and a growing number of great-grandchildren. His Lytton Rd whare is a key hub for whānau. As long as you didn’t disturb him while he was watching Emmerdale Farm, he loved nothing more than a cup of tea and a natter.
As his mobility was compromised in recent years, his granddaughter’s husband, Henry Lamont, drove Libby to and from Turanga Health’s Derby St office. Reweti says right up until his last few weeks Libby continued to be a mentor. Libby pushed him and Turanga Health to have the agility, guile, and wisdom of an eel from Lake Repongaere. “It’s because of this advice that Turanga Health has for years been able to put faces into Turanga spaces and support whānau wherever they may be. Libby wasn’t interested in being associated with a Waituhi garden snail.”
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