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Gretchen Hawkesby: mum on a mission

Juggling a busy family life and helping children is all in a day’s work for this charity champion.

She’s the daughter of Graeme Hart – New Zealand’s richest man – and married to Duncan Hawkesby, part of the dynasty that includes media-giant-turned-wine-writer John and sister-in-law Kate, along with her husband, broadcaster Mike Hosking.

But while many in her position would happily luxuriate in splendour, Gretchen Hawkesby’s life is as full and chaotic as any other working mum. Her day job means it’s not just her kids she looks after – she’s also a very passionate chairwoman of Friends of Starship, the charity that raises money for the  children’s hospital.

The experienced marketing graduate is currently deeply entrenched in the latest venture – sending a bunch of athletes on a gruelling 450km-expedition through the South Island in a bid to raise money for Starship’s National Air Ambulance, which rushes medical aid to sick and injured children throughout the country. And it’s a trip she thinks her son Miller (10) would love.

“It sounds completely exhausting! But it’s his sort of thing – he loves adventure activities with his dad,” says Gretchen (37), who is also mum to Jemima (8), Fletcher (7) and five-year-old Dylan. “The kids are really sporty. The boys all play rugby and Jemima swims and plays netball, and the younger two are just starting rugby league too.

Dylan’s actually joining the under-sevens with Fletcher to make it easier for me to get everyone there on time!” she laughs, insisting that he’ll take the rigours of playing with the bigger boys in his stride. “Don’t worry about him – he’s a fiery little redhead and he can tackle the best of them. He’s the youngest of four – he’s pretty good at looking after himself!”

But while she adores her brood with hubby Duncan (also 37), who she describes as her “best friend”, she insists there won’t be more. “The plan was always to have four, and we had them in four and a half years. That’s it – no more!” she laughs.

While Gretchen takes a moment to sit down on the large couch to rest – she’s currently suffering from a bad back, although she’s staunchly refusing to let it slow her down – Gretchen’s mum Robyn, who lives next door with Graeme, is a constant presence, corralling dogs and visitors at the busy home, which is connected to her own by a garden gate.

“I’m lucky, our families are very entwined – Mum’s always to and fro between the houses,” explains Gretchen. “Having her next door is perfect. Duncan and I originally lived with them next door, then the house on this site came on the market. Mum and Dad bought it, we rented it, then after we had two kids we decided we needed more space, so we moved back in with them while we built this.”

But although the couple moved out, Robyn’s presence is a constant in Gretchen and Duncan’s house – the talented Robyn decided she’d put her own finishing touches to her daughter’s new home. “Mum decided this room needed more colour, so she painted these pictures of a domestic goddess through the week,” says Gretchen, pointing to the six canvases depicting a glamorous woman doing everything from vacuuming to chain-sawing – ending the week with a bottle of Lion Red.

“We’d seen something similar on a trip to the Napa Valley, so she did her own take on it. She wanted me to have a wine or Champagne at the end, but Duncan insisted she put in beer!” While the open-plan house is undoubtedly tasteful and elegant, it’s also a happy, relaxed space. It’s the perfect spot for everyone, it seems.

“It’s very much an open home – there’s always something going on,” smiles Gretchen, adding that they need the space for their big brood. “We’re a huge family – my husband has 12 cousins and they all have between two  and five children each. Family events are mayhem! But I love the buzz here.

The neighbours, family – everyone knows our door code. I’ll come back from work and everyone will have  come over and be in the pool!” It’s this warm-heartedness that makes Gretchen the perfect frontwoman for Starship, which she’s been associated with for more than a decade. Her first experience with Starship kids was on her parents’ boat, when they took 20 children with cancer out during the America’s Cup.

“I’ve always been very kid-focused, even before I had my own,” she explains. “Before I did this, I worked with Duncan – we own Fliway, a transport and logistics business – but I was using my marketing skills far more with Starship than at work. “So rather than try and work, raise four kids and do Starship justice, I decided to stop work and give my everything to raising money for the hospital.”

And like so many Kiwi mums and dads, she’s been through the stress and worry the Starship staff see every day from parents. “Miller developed [bone infection] osteomyelitis when he was two, so was in Starship for about two weeks,” Gretchen says.

“He recovered, but if it hadn’t been picked up so quickly he could have ended up with a limp, or worse. Dylan was in Starship for a week when he was just four weeks old too, with a nasty virus. And of course there’s the stitches, the gluing together and broken legs!”

But while Gretchen will always be grateful for the help she’s received from the hospital, she’s all too aware of the Kiwi families whose lives depend on the hospital and the amount of money that needs to be raised. “Children and hospitals are such emotional subjects – you can’t help but get involved,” she says.

“There was one little girl, Becky, who had a huge effect on me – I ended up quite close to her and her family,” remembers Gretchen. “Sadly she passed away, but there are success stories – a friend’s little boy, Bailey, is celebrating three years of being cancer-free, after having his first chemotherapy on his second birthday. It does affect you.”

Which is why the devoted mum is so passionate about her work. “I really love what I do,” says Gretchen, whose other family members, including in-laws John and Joyce and her parents Graeme and Robyn, are regular attendees at Starship events.

“My marketing degree is perfect for this job. When I first got to Starship I realised how much more money needed to be raised. I’m a complete control freak – my colleagues call me ‘very hands-on’! We have great brainstorming sessions. We come up with what we want to do and I come back with a bunch of instructions, and my amazing committee do it. I’m very lucky.”

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