Real Life

Wendy and Val are using retirement as a time to give back

It’s a good job these two clever women turned their hands to helping others
Photos: Carmen Bird

Most people count down the days until retirement, but for former Australia Telstra Business Woman of the Year Wendy Watson-Ekstein, the decision was more sudden.

“My husband and I were on holiday in Vermont and I had every intention of going back to work, which I loved,” she tells. “Then one night, I had a nightmare that I was going to miss deadlines and everyone was furious at me.. You know those ones that are so vivid, you swear it’s real life? I woke up with my heart racing and decided not to go back to work.”

She was 62 and that was that. Instead of returning to her fast-paced life as a consultant with a high-flying international career in marketing and advertising, Wendy started researching the dynamics of older women in relationships with younger men (a hobby project that’s close to her heart, as Wendy is 10 years older than her husband James Watson).

If you set yourself up properly and save for retirement, Wendy says, ‘Life holds a future worth anticipating.’

However, the book she began writing on the subject has had to be put on the backburner because at 76, she has found herself at the helm of another project, running DEANZ Repair Cafés – and she loves it.

Repair Cafés are free events where local people bring in their broken or damaged belongings, and volunteer experts do their best to sew, solder, glue, screw and give new life to old items.

Wendy laughs as she explains, “Initially I went along to a few meetings with my husband for something to do. Next minute, I’m in the thick of it!”

Today, there are eight Repair Cafés across Auckland. They’ve helped more than 3000 visitors and saved more than $200,000 worth of items from going into landfill.

“I’m really passionate about people getting things repaired that had emotional value or that they couldn’t have afforded to have done otherwise,” says Wendy.

“For example – and I get a catch in my throat each time I tell this one – one woman brought in a ripped bag that belonged to her late brother, who served in Afghanistan and returned with shellshock and PTSD, having lost two of his army friends to a landmine.

With husband James.

“Our volunteers went to the trouble of creating binding from scrap material and sewing it by hand. Then it was machine-sewed for maximum toughness and durability,” she tells. “I was there for the repair and it moved me deeply. It’s stories like this that make the Repair Cafés so worthwhile.”

Volunteering 30 hours a week in retirement wasn’t something she’d imagined herself doing. But Wendy, who won the 1996 Australia Telstra Women’s Business Award in the category of Private Sector – Less Than 100 Employees, wouldn’t have it any other way.

“Back then, 76 seemed very old,” she says. “But if you have the energy and are fortunate enough with health and choice of life partner, life can be filled with a future to look forward to. Yes, it can mean lots of hard work, but it’s incredibly satisfying and rewarding.”

To volunteer or find your nearest Repair Café, visit

Val’s giving back through Lego

Val holding up some of the Lego structures she has built during her retirement

When Val Collis retired from her fast-paced job in operations eight years ago, she found herself at a loose end.

Used to being busy and productive, she knew she needed to find a hobby to fill her days so, inspired by her grandkids, she turned her hand to Lego – something she’d never done before.

“I started off with quite basic sets and then gradually got into more advanced projects,” shares Val, 74. “The detail and process really appealed to me.”

Val had also been volunteering at the Albany hospice store. She was initially looking after the fine china donations, until 18 months ago. She came up with the idea of combining her love of Lego with the meaningful role. The plan was to take home random bags of donated Lego bits, then see if she could turn them into finished creations that were easier to sell.

Not everyone has the patience needed to dig through thousands of pieces, gleaning clues for what to build before spending weeks putting it together. However, Val likes the challenge and says it keeps her brain sharp.

“Each Lego piece has a unique number. I look them up on the website, work out which set they are from and look for the instructions online. Then I see if I can put it together!”

On a sunny day, you’ll find the deck of Val’s Auckland home littered with plastic pieces. After washing away grime and dust, they now bask in the sun, drying before embarking on their second life. Her finished sets have sold for as much as $120.

“I get a real satisfaction from helping hospice. I find it so rewarding to put a completed set on the shelf in the shop,” she says. “Being retired, I’ve got the time to do it now. It feels good knowing I’m helping a good cause raise money.”

To donate or volunteer for hospice, check out

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