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The Aunties: Social media based charity helping those who need it most

This amazing Aucklander has quit her job so she can focus on her charity full time.

Despite being an “auntie” to dozens, if not hundreds, of at-risk women and children, Jackie Clark reckons she would have been a hopeless mum.

“Heavens to Betsy, no,” the 53-year-old roars, her laugh booming around the room.

“I come from an unbelievably large family. I had eight siblings, I have 16 nieces and nephews, and I’ve taught kids all my life. I don’t need any of my own. I’m a very impatient person and if I’d had children, I would have been a completely different person to who I am now.”

The person she is now is the full-time head or “Auntie in Charge” of a group of women known collectively as the Aunties, a social media-based charity that provides material needs and support to victims of domestic violence.

It began after Jackie, a teacher with 20 years’ experience behind her, rang a small South Auckland refuge in 2012 to offer them baby clothes from the kindergarten she worked at.

“It turns out the women I spoke to had just got the job of running the refuge, so I opened my mouth and asked what else they needed. I posted a request for stuff on Twitter and it grew from that. People are so generous, so good and kind – they just don’t quite know how to go about giving stuff. They need a pathway for that and that’s where we come in.”

The Aunties is now a registered charity with a core group of around 20 to 30 male and female volunteers, among them professionals and stay-at-home parents alike, and even a celebrity chairperson, comedian Michelle A’Court.

But like every success story, Jackie’s isn’t without its share of hard work and personal sacrifice. Growing up in what she describes as a “comfortably off left-leaning” North Shore family, Jackie’s formative years were coloured by political activism – the anti-racism movement, Springbok tour protests and the University of Auckland’s feminist collective.

In the early ’80s, she embarked on her OE, treading the usual path to England and enjoying a stint working in bars, before heading home to take up teaching aged 30.

In 1997, during Jackie’s last year of teacher training college, her husband Ian found out he had acute leukaemia and the couple was told to expect the worst.

Thankfully, the prognosis was proved incorrect, but in June 2013 another tragedy struck. Jackie’s best friend Carol, who she had known since they were both 17, was diagnosed with cancer. She died six weeks later.

“For those six weeks, I’d be at work, then I would go and be with her. It consumed me,” Jackie tells, holding back tears. “My world exploded – she’d been my everything. She taught me how to be a good friend. She was the most generous, loving, non-judgmental person I’ve ever met – and she taught me to be like that too.”

Jackie threw herself into her philanthropic activities. Lunchtime visits to the refuge increased and she became involved with an emergency housing provider, and with the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective. Every spare moment she had was spent rallying and delivering donations of towels, toiletries and undies – “all the basics” – along with furniture and electrical goods.

Towards the end of last year, though, she hit the wall. Her ongoing grief over Carol’s death and constant worry about Ian’s health, coupled with juggling full-time work with time-consuming charity work, had become all-encompassing.

With Ian’s blessing, Jackie quit teaching so she could focus on being an Auntie. They sold their bungalow – groaning under increasing volumes of donated goods – and bought a home in Manurewa, where they now rent a storage unit. An Aunties Facebook page has also been set up.

Sadly Jackie says the need for the service is greater than ever – “I’ve seen the worst of the worst and it’s not getting better. We are a violent society. And in terms of poverty, economic fragility has got worse as well.

If people are making a poor decision, it’s because they have no choice. There’s nothing else they can do. You know they ask for help very, very reluctantly.”

For all that, Jackie and her Aunties are obviously making a difference to many lives. Author Fiona Farrell best sums that up in an anecdote she offered at a recent charity event.

Tells an emotional Jackie, “She brought up the Christchurch earthquakes. She looked at me and said she felt it was a really amazing thing that [we] create from tragedy.

It instantly changed how I saw what I had done. I had been grieving and I had thrown myself into this work. I suddenly realised that yeah, maybe I had created this thing of beauty.”

The Aunties are currently accepting donations for children’s Christmas presents. See aunties.co.nz.

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