He’s Northland’s newest knight, but Chris Farrelly says he struggled with the title associated with his New Year’s Honour.
Farrelly has been appointed a Knight Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit (KNZM) in the Queen’s New Years Honours list, for services to health and the community, and with it the title of Sir.
‘”SOC, or Same Old Chris,” Farrelly says he’d prefer to be called as the title Sir Chris still feels strange.
And while the honour and accolades are not why Farrelly got into helping – that was to “give a voice to the voiceless in society” – he fully appreciates that his work has been deemed worth of such a high credit.
Farrelly started his service in Northland back in 1991, when he took up the role of HIV/Aids coordinator for the then Northland Health. This was his way of giving that voice to the voiceless – with HIV/Aids causing fear and panic as it spread around the world. It was initially, and wrongly, seen as a disease of homosexuals, but Farrelly helped break down the stigma and raised widespread awareness of the issue.
He says this first introduced him to some heavyweight Māori leaders, who helped guide his journey too, as he worked to break down the myths and barriers surrounding people with HIV/Aids.
”I went up to a tangi (of and Aids sufferer) in the Hokianga and they wouldn’t have an open coffin as they felt if it was open it would infect everybody. There was so much misinformation around it then.
”But we went to Dargaville and got them to have an Aids Awareness Week – the first of its kind in New Zealand in a little town in Northland – things like that helped overcame the bigotry and just incorrect information that was around at the time,” he said.
He later ran Dargaville Hospital – saving it from planned closure – before starting and leading Manaia Health, the region’s first Primary Health Organisation from 2003 to 2016.
Farrelly says this involved getting GPs, iwi and communities to work together for the best primary care outcomes.
“We did this thanks to the amazing people I worked with to get some amazing outcomes. I said when we started that it really had to be a 50/50 partnership with Māori.
”I realised if we wanted to make a positive difference to health outcomes we had to be at the top of the cliff.”
As part of the PHO he helped implement a Healthy Homes initiative that saw more than 12,000 of substandard Northland homes retrofitted and insulated to make them warmer and healthier.
”Now that was a real game changer. Another was reintroducing milk in schools after we approached Fonterra. We found kids weren’t drinking milk here, instead drinking rubbish fizzy stuff, so we wanted to get them back to drinking milk.”
From there he was head hunted to become the Auckland City Missioner, running the Auckland City Mission, which cares for the city’s poor, needy and homeless.
Farrelly says he has had many highlights but a big one was overseeing the building the new Auckland City Mission – “Home Ground” a $150 building in Hobson St that includes 50 apartments to house homeless people, along with support services to wrap around them.
He retired from the city mission earlier this year to return to his beloved Northland, to live at Whangārei Heads with his wife Sue Rishworth.
Farrelly’s father worked for the dairy company they moved around the country a lot, but the family had a bach at Woolleys Bay on the Tutukaka Coast where they regularly stayed so he has always considered Northland home – as the only constant base. He’s delighted to be back in the region he loves.
Farrelly said his honour is not just for him, but the many wonderful and amazing people he had worked with over the years – doctors, nurses, GPs, Māori leaders – such as Erima Henare and Puna Matenga – and ordinary folk.
But, he says, the biggest recognition has to go to his wife.
”Sue has always been there for me and is such an amazing and inspiring person that I couldn’t have done anything without her. For the last five years while I was City Missioner, working 24/7, she was always that rock for me – she has helped sow the seeds for what I do and supported me throughout.”
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