Upon boarding a flight from Auckland to Christchurch, professional speaker Cat Levine found herself seated between a politician and mental health advocate Mike King.
It was an easy choice of who to strike up conversation with.
"Mike seemed more interesting," she says with a laugh.
They quickly got chatting, connecting over a shared passion for helping youth, and the chance encounter with the comedian couldn't have had better timing.
A year on, Mike, who is recovering from a serious motorbike crash, is joining forces with Cat and her dad, retired farmer Phil Aish, as they begin a month-long Tractor Trek from Bluff to Cape Reinga in the lead-up to mental-health fundraiser Gumboot Friday on April 3.
The trio will focus on rural communities, which face concerning rates of poor mental health and suicide, while raising awareness and money for counselling for any young person in need.
"On that flight, Mike showed me texts on his phone from kids who had reached out to him, saying how much his talk at their school had helped them," recalls Cat (45).
"We exchanged numbers and I had a deep sense that something positive would come from meeting him.
"Then later that week, Dad told me he'd just finished The Resilient Farmer, a book by Blenheim farmer Doug Avery about his struggles with mental health.
"Dad said, 'I know what I want the 2020 Tractor Trek to fundraise for – rural mental health and suicide prevention. But I don't know what charity to align with for that.' So I replied that I'd give my new best friend Mike a call!"
Weekly readers might remember Phil, whose original Tractor Trek in 2016 was borne from his desire to give back to the hospice that had cared for his dying wife, Janice.
Feeling that it was time for something new to get behind, he searched for a cause deserving of support.
"Gumboots, tractors, farmers… It's such a perfect alignment," says Phil, who has 16 grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
"I'm nearly 81 and if I can drive a tractor from one end of the country to the other, and one person, whether young or old, can realise there is hope, I'll do it."
When asked if he's known other farmers who've felt isolated, there's a long pause.
"Not that they would tell me," he says, admitting he had his own dark days after Janice passed away, "but never to the point where I would consider taking my life.
"Farmers are naturally quite private people. This is the problem. They don't share. Yet I hear of many tragic stories – one small town has lost three of its young shearers in recent years – and Statistics NZ revealed that suicide rates are higher in rural areas."
He explains that farming communities face physical isolation, economic instability and limited access to health services, all of which contribute to poor mental health.
"Mike King is a champion for getting stuff out in the open. My hope is to live long enough to see that rising suicide graph go down and dispel this dark cloud that covers Aotearoa."
With the comedian on the mend after losing control when his bike hit an oil slick north of Paeroa on January 3, leaving him with broken bones and a punctured lung, the cavalcade of 30 will travel 2700km on a fleet of 20 tractors and stay at campgrounds while hosting free community and school events.
"Every one of these tractor drivers is taking a month off work to serve the cause," Phil says.
Cat will speak to primary school students, teaching them healthy habits for mental health – without talking about depression and suicide – while Mike carries out community talks at Farmlands and Farm Source stores.
The aim is to raise $5 million to provide free counselling for children and young people.
"While government agencies are doing their best, some young people are stuck waiting up to six months to receive the counselling they so urgently need," says Cat, a mum-of-three and former youth worker.
"While on the trek, the main point I want to share with kids is that feelings aren't forever.
"A huge part of mental health is emotional 'literacy' – being able to express feelings and not just explode with emotion and act out, but be able to say, 'I feel sad because I'm embarrassed or unsafe or rejected.'
"It's giving them the language to be able to name their feelings, and showing them how to ask for help.
"Additionally, Mike and I will be teaching both children and adults how to watch out for your mates. To voice, 'I can see you're a bit stuck there, so together let's get help.'
"It's having an awareness of others who are overwhelmed by big feelings but may not be able to articulate it."
The father-daughter duo are looking forward to spending a month on the road together, albeit travelling at 25km/h.
"Seriously, how special is it to be doing something like this with your daughter?" says Phil.
"It's off the scale. I couldn't wish for a better person to do this with. I'm a rich man."
For more information, visit: gumbootfridaytractortrek.org
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