Local Folk: Karen Gibbons

The Raiders league club has been Karen Gibbons’ second home, but she is stepping down as chair next week – a post she has held since 2009. As she has supported the club over the years, so it has supported her, most notably when her son Ryan was killed in a car crash. The 58-year-old’s voluntary work for local league has been officially recognised by the ARL, who awarded her the Simons Scroll earlier this year. She spoke with Terry Moore.

I first went to the Raiders in Stanmore Bay in 1995. My eldest son, Shane, came home from school and asked if he could join a team. My father played rugby for Canterbury and then switched to league and again played for Canterbury and the South Island. It was North against South in those days. I prefer league because there are too many rules in rugby! I was on the sidelines watching Shane’s games, and then Ryan, who is three years younger, started playing in 1996. It wasn’t long before I became the manager of Ryan’s team of seven and eight-year-olds and I managed them until they were in the U15s.

It’s a very family orientated club and I made a lot of good friends. All the kids went to school together, grew up together, played Touch and Tag together. In 2000 I was asked to be junior delegate, and then Junior Club Captain and secretary. I stepped down at Raiders at the end of 2004 because I went onto the board of directors of Touch North Harbour, though I was still managing Raiders teams and sorting out their grant funding applications. For some time my attention was focused on Touch – I have managed men’s women’s and youth teams as well as the NZ over 40 Men’s and the U19 Men’s. Then, Steve Ashe, who was the Raiders chair at the time, left for England and badgered me into taking on the position. That was in 2009 and I have been chair ever since. I’ve met some very interesting people – other chairs, NRL players and Raelene Castle, chief executive of Rugby Australia. It was amazing hearing from a woman like her, working in a male environment. There are a lot more female chairs in league clubs than when I started. It’s not like you feel uncomfortable but as you gain respect, you get asked your opinion a bit more freely, I’ve found.

I began working at Corrections 18 years ago as PA to a prison director. I trained to be a PA, doing shorthand and typing, straight after school and was with Police for six or seven years, relieving at various stations and also a typist for the CIB. What I enjoy about my job at the prison is that every day is different and everything can change in 30 seconds. I’ve spent quite a lot of time with prisoners – the prison rugby league team has been playing under Raiders name and colours for 12 years. Some of Raiders’ senior players will step in if the prison is short of a player. Sport is good rehab – especially for males.

Winters have been totally focused on Raiders. At the beginning of the season it might mean spending a few hours there every night, but it ranges from five hours a week to 20 hours a week in the busy part of the season – all as a volunteer. There have been a lot of milestones. The club has had highs and lows but every year we have won at least one title in a grade from U13 to Premiers. It’s also the only club in NZ to have completed the League for Life programme, which has a focus on good health, no smoking and being a good sport. When I was at high school I played a lot of sport – I represented Canterbury in hockey and indoor basketball. I ended up playing basketball until I was 38, including representing the Hibiscus Coast. Whenever I took on a role as team manager, it was a way of giving back for all that help I received as a sportsperson. My father always said if you play a team sport, you have to see the season out and turn up to every training and every game unless you are in hospital. One of the problems I see coming through is that there is less of that commitment, in all sports.

Ryan played at Raiders for 15 years and with Touch North Harbour for 10 years, as well as for the NZ U19 Men in Touch. He had been approached by the Warriors and Canberra Raiders and was training hard at the Leisure Centre to get his weight up for the position of halfback or standoff when he died.

One night, when he was 19, he went to Pinewoods Motor Camp in Red Beach to see a friend whose family had a bach here. He was going fishing with the friend and the boy’s father. A lot of what happened then we can only figure out, together with Police. Apparently they didn’t get any fish and went back to the bach to play cards and drink. We believe Ryan wasn’t drinking – he had no alcohol in his system. Ryan’s car was in the visitors’ carpark in Pinewoods and Ryan’s friend drove him to get the car. Apparently he changed radio channel and ended up 25 metres down a cliff. Ryan, who wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, was killed. The driver was three times over the blood alcohol limit and had taken drugs. It was very unusual for Ryan not to be wearing a seatbelt because ever since we had a wee accident when they were boys, he’d had a thing about making sure everyone was buckled in. Police knocked on my door at 4am, eight years ago on January 5, and told me the news. The driver was charged with driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs causing death, but he got off. Shane and I didn’t want him to go to prison, but we expected more than community detention, community work and $5000 paid to us.

The whole community rallied around – a walk in chiller was brought in, full of food, and put on my driveway. I will always be grateful to the people around here who were there for Shane and me. Ryan’s funeral was at the Raiders and 1500 people were there from all over the community. He got on with so many people and had many different friend groups. There were 10 marquees, the Primary school supplied the chairs, the club put up photo boards and all Ryan’s trophies and medals were on display.

Since then I have become a volunteer with Brake NZ, which holds an event in November on Orewa Beach to remember people who have been killed in crashes. You are floundering when something like this happens – you don’t get to say goodbye. He said ‘love you, see you tomorrow,” and that was it. I am afraid that all the messaging about speed and alcohol has not brought the road toll down. Brake helps where we can, and I am hoping to speak with Auckland Transport soon about road safety, including the issue of so many different speed limits on Whangaparaoa Road.

I went back to work part-time after a couple of weeks. Ryan would have said to ‘get off my arse and get on with life’, because he packed a lot into his 19 years. The first 12 months was not easy. Time doesn’t make it better – it makes you find ways to deal with it. I had no counselling until 18 months after he died, when I thought I needed to talk to a professional. But the counselor said that I didn’t need it and that was because I always talked about it and got a lot of support from friends and family.

This month I will be stepping down as chair at Raiders. The committee freaked out when I told them back in May. It has been a process of goodbyes at prizegivings since then. One of the teams did a haka and I’ve had loads of flowers and bottles of wine. I will still be around – behind the bar, on the match manager roster and doing the grant applications or anything else they ask for. The place has been so much a part of our family that if I completely stepped away it would be like suddenly not speaking to a family member. I’ve enjoyed it, but it’s time for fresh ideas. I want to go down there and be able to relax and just watch league. I also want to spend more time with my one-year-old granddaughter and gardening. I’ll be able to go away for the weekend if I feel like it. I’m ready for some ‘me’ time and to refocus on what may be ahead.


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