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To Mandang with love

Heat bounced off the sun-baked tarmac at Christchurch airport as Maureen checked the buttons on her overcoat were all in order.

With one foot on the floor of the small biplane she stopped and turned from the top of the steps.

Waving and beaming at her family below, dressed in their Sunday best, she gave them a last smile and hurried to her seat, her racing heart beating a tattoo of anticipation.

At 27 years old, Maureen was, as always, eager for the adventure that lay ahead. Where nerves may have dwelled, there were none; the young women leaving New Zealand for the first time listened to the whine of the propellers with a growing thrill of excitement.

It was the first of many journeys that not only shaped the life of the young woman from D’Urville Island but also the lives of many others who benefited from her unwavering drive and compassion.

From the family farm to her home in Mandang, Papua New Guinea (PNG), Maureen Hill, nee Leov, 83, is less impressed about her accomplishments than others in the know.

“I had the opportunity to travel the world,” she says simply.

One hundred and twenty-two countries under her belt after that first overseas odyssey, Maureen settled in PNG, with husband Peter, few worldly possessions and an indomitable will to help others thrive.

“Like all women, I followed a man,” she laughs.

The happy couple married in April 1969 and settled in the port community of around 50,000 where Peter worked as a plumber.

Maureen was quick to carve out a niche for herself, tackling the Herculean task of bringing knowledge to those who needed it most.

“She saw the need for education straightway,” her sister Helen Dyer says. “She worked out a curriculum, it was just amazing. She did everything she had to, determined to make it succeed.”

Maureen Hill was given the Order of Logohu, one of Papa New Guinea’s highest honours.

As a child growing up in the isolated north western tip of the South Island, Maureen knew little of PNG, the Indonesian Island she was later to call home.

She associated it with the candied scent of coconuts used to fragrance her mum’s favourite soap bar. Written on the wrapper in tiny black text, the words told her the ingredients came from PNG.

Her home for 51 years, Mandang is the heart of all she does, the ties that bind are strong and welcome, each the result of decades of care, experience, friendships and the inevitable sorrows.

Her achievements are many.

Awarded an MBE for service to children and Red Cross and in 2005 she was also awarded the coveted 30th Independence award for service to the community.

With presidential roles with the Mandang Red Cross, Country Women’s Association, Lions Rotary Club, City Mission, the Provincial Council of Women and Child Welfare and an active membership on the Modilon Hospital Board, Maureen has touched the lives of many on the island.

The early childhood education centre she started in Mandang in 1970 still operates today, marking its 50th anniversary in October.

Her dedication and drive saw her receive the Order of Logohu, one of PNG’s highest honours.

From left, Maureen, Ruth, Helen, June, Gilbert and Fred Leov on d’Urville Island.

But it has not all been highs, there have been lows too of course, Helen says.

When Peter was diagnosed with cancer four years ago, it was to Helen she turned for support and practical health.

Nine years older than Helen, Maureen had become a mother figure to her as they grew up on the family’s farm at Grenville Harbour along with their siblings, Gilbert, Fred and June.

“She had to grow up very quickly and was really more of a mother to me in many ways. Mum taught us cooking and correspondence school and Maureen took on those responsibilities very early.

“When Peter was ill, I didn’t hesitate, it was my turn to look after Maureen.

“I stayed after he died and wanted her to come back with me but she wouldn’t hear of it.”

Helen, who lives in Blenheim, explains how the years spent on their family farm as children influenced their lives and views of the world.

“Because of where we were living, we were all very independent, but dad decided we had to stay at home until we were 21 years old, Maureen broke the chains then and just took off.

“Her first trip was to Tasmania with the Country Girls Club, as a prize she won for being good at talking. She still is.

“She had aims, people to see and places to go,”

Helen explains with a smile as she remembers her sister’s initial reluctance to settle down.

“Peter was on the scene but so were half of the guys in town then,” she laughs.

From left, Maureen, Ruth, Helen, June, Gilbert and Fred Leov on d’Urville Island.

It is a typical heat laden day in tropical Mandang. Maureen is leaving the airconditioned sanctuary of her home to head into town. Her blue eyes remain sharp, but her gait is slower, more considered. She is greeted wherever she goes.

The country and its people have kept her alive, she says, a recent spell of ill health at the forefront of her mind.

“I don’t know why I do what I do, but I love what I do. If I were in another country I would have died.”

She has won the respect of everyone who knows her, says close friend Sir Peter Barter, OBE, the country’s former Minister of Health.

Maureen cared for his son Andrew and his two grandchildren through her kindergarten initiative.

“Maureen drives the community into helping those in need. She has been responsible for raising millions of kina and despite her age and health, she thrives on work.

“Wherever she goes, people come up and ask her, ‘remember me?’ and she does.

“So many people have been touched by her commitment to humanity, her dedication, commitment and generosity,” Peter says.

Almost 5,000 kilometres away, it is a testament echoed proudly by Helen.

“She has done so much for so many, but I think she’s slowly getting to the stage where she’s ready to pass on the mantle to someone else.

“Her and Pete never had a family of their own. The kids she taught were her children. So many people depend on her, she’s not quite ready to call it a day.”