Tauranga’s ‘Shining Star’ of social work

Merrill Simmons-Hansen 2213 DG 001-002: Merrill Simmons-Hansen hopes to draw attention to the challenges faced by social workers by accepting an ANZASW Life Membership. Photo: John Borren/SunLive

It was an epiphany at one of the worst times in her life that would decide her career. As her 16-year-old brother was dying of leukaemia, Merrill Simmons-Hansen wondered at the lack of support.

“It was the early-1970s and I remember feeling that there were so few people to come sit with him or help my family through this transition of illness and death. Where were the hands to hold us and help us bear it?”

As a result, the 67-year-old Tauranga South resident has worked in social work roles since 1987 and has been a member of the Aotearoa New Zealand Association of Social Workers from 1995. Born and raised in Waikato, she has lived in Tauranga since 1999.

Now, the Tauranga social worker has been honoured for her four decades in the industry with a Life Membership of the Aotearoa New Zealand Association of Social Workers. Her peers describe her as a shining star who works hard to raise awareness and advocate for issues in the community.

Association CEO Braden Clark says her contribution is significant, not just on a local level, but also regionally and nationally.

“Social workers deal with some of the most vulnerable people in society and issues that most people never have to face. For example, Merrill is working with survivors of sexual abuse.

“She’s talking and supporting people through some of the most challenging moments of their life, so to have longevity requires a lot of self-care, support, and dedication.”

Merrill has been an ANZASW member for 25 years. In that time, she has chaired and co-chaired the Tauranga branch as well as serving as a Bay of Plenty representative on the national board. Her particular interests have been social justice and bi-cultural partnerships.

“In school, I wondered why more of my Māori playmates disappeared at intermediate and college level. “I could feel the structural and personal racism in our society, and it troubled me that someone could be invisible because of their name or skin colour.

“I wanted work towards both cultures being valued and I have cherished the contribution I’ve been able to make,” says Merrill.

For 10 years she was a solo mother on a benefit while working part-time and supporting women’s refuge.

“I found it a powerful experience. It helped me understand my own story and why it is so important that we speak up for what is needed.

“Some of my work has been with women who’ve been abused and belittled. It really concerned me that they weren’t valued. I resent the stigmas that denigrate a human being. I find it untenable.”

By accepting this Life Membership, Merrill is hoping to draw attention to the challenges faced by social workers.

Social Workers see the struggle and tenacity it takes to be human. It’s not for the faint-hearted. I’m proud to stand in a place where people can get a hand up and grow their lives.”


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