Cherie Williams is a bit of a legend around Pakiri. She’s everyone’s auntie, she has an unlimited source of exceptional frocks – and she takes the occasional trip in a chopper. Cherie had an uncomplicated childhood. She was the third generation of her family (Ngati Manuhiri and Ngati Wai) who went to Pakiri School. (This year the school will be 139 years old – later in life Cherie would spend 18 years on the school’s Board of Trustees.) The Matakana Op-Shop and a bunch of fabulously stylish visiting aunties featured largely in her life back then. So did the Farmers’ Trading Company in Wellsford. Cherie’s grandmother bought her a pair of Beatle boots there. “I wore them to bed with my cream floral hotpants,” she reminisces.
Cherie left school to look after her mum when she was sixteen. When she died, Cherie went to live in Auckland with whanau. She trained as a nurse, working at North Shore Hospital, but ended up coming back to Pakiri, to look after her ailing grandmother. “I don’t really remember a time when I wasn’t caring for somebody,” she says.
In those years, Cherie was a youth worker and set up a number of support groups at grass roots level in Wellsford – an employement agency, gym and hang-out place. “Some of these kids had been kicked out of school and home. There were drugs, suicide and rape… we went and talked to local government about it. I don’t think anyone had ever said the word ‘rape’ to them. We did.”
It was rewarding but hard work – and by now Cherie had two small boys, and she wanted them raised in a good place surrounded by whanau. So home to the Omaha marae she went – into the kitchens. “It’s where everything happens, out the back,” she says, with a chuckle. But soon she was called up front: Cherie is now, and has been for many years, one of the kaikaranga, a caller on the marae. It’s a role which for her is a serious responsibility, and a privilege.
Another of her official roles as one of the kaitiaki, the guardians of the area, involves the occasional trip in a helicopter. Endangered native bird breeding programmes occasionally have a successful population that can be split, with some translocating to a new home. There are important waiata and korero (song and speech) ceremonies involved in their journey. Cherie helps with these, and sometimes goes with the birds in a helicopter. She usually works between Tawharanui Regional Park and Hauturu (Little Barrier).
Cherie also runs ‘Taonga on the Move’ – a shipping container that’s been turned into an art gallery. She travels with it to schools and regional parks, where guests watch a documentary on local artists (carver, painter, musician, weaver). “People are very moved by this film – it’s a glimpse for them into what’s important to mana whenua as the ahi ka,” says Cherie. (Which translates loosely as ‘important to people of this land as those who keep the home fires burning.’) They usually leave with a harakeke or flax flower Cherie has taught them to weave.
But really, when she gets home, Cherie is all about… second hand clothes. She collects everything; the more outrageous the better. She holds a ‘garage sale’ most weekends. It began when she found herself a solo mum of two young boys whose rugby talent required funding to drive them for miles to rep practice (one is now playing in Spain and the other captains the Wellsford team).
Cherie adores dressing people up, and loves the way she never knows what a Saturday will bring. She gets all sorts. “I remember these four young guys once who came in to have a look on New Year’s Day. I think they were still pretty drunk. They ended up dressing up in women’s clothes and skipping off down the road. I thought, well – this is what it’s all about.” She’s had people come in, sit down and start crying (“they just needed a bit of company”), and a French girl who arrived out of nowhere and stayed for a week.
Locals are glad that her colourful setup (Cherie surrounds herself with wildly vibrant colour whenever possible) is a feature in Pakiri again. “It’s always like Grand Central Station wherever Cherie is,” says cousin Star Gossage, who’s popped in with her daughter Grace to score some dress-ups for a big whanau party that night. “She draws people in – and that’s just how she likes it.”
Cherie’s main money-earner is as a caregiver employed by a contractor for the ACC. She visits people, helps them shower and dress, takes them to the hairdresser and out shopping. “But most of the time I still go and see them when I’ve finished the contract – a lot of them may not have seen anyone else for a week,” she says. “I’ve got one lovely lady who’s 82 and loves clothes like me… I saw this dress that was perfect for her the other day. So I took it out, put it on her, did her hair and put some lippy on her – well! What a transformation! She got a huge buzz out of that, and so did I.” Cherie has a huge heart, great style, and doesn’t hesitate to put compassion into action. She has without a doubt transformed many lives and she’s going to carry right on doing so for a long time yet. Her favourite phrase is “Hei tangata, hei tangata!” It’s all about the people.