Sheree Petersen has had an interesting and full working life but a lack of formal qualifications is holding the 58-year-old back from finding work.
This, despite three decades working as a professional carer in England and the United States.
“I spent nine years in England, 23 years in Los Angeles and then I got the offer of a lifetime to go to Hawaii, my flight would be paid, I would have my own room, own bathroom, floor to ceiling ocean views, convertible Camaro and to name my price. And this man had two weeks to two months to live and with my sole care he lived for another seven and a half years.
“Now I can’t get a job because it’s all agencies... I don’t have any piece of paper that says I have the qualifications.”
Her experience has made her contemplative rather than bitter.
“My message to young people today is that school doesn’t work for all of us, but if you find what you love, some kind of employment that’s never like working... do it well and you get better at it.”
She was hopeful for herself and others, she said.
“I am currently homeless, from having an awesome, awesome life and travelling, I have come back to New Zealand to a very different scene. And I am starting from the bottom again, but I definitely know this is not a forever situation... I think going through this gives one humility, so when you are up to the next level and the next, you are better able to help other people because you identify.”
Petersen’s father drowned when her mother was pregnant with her, she said, and she moved to Taupō in her early teens to escape an abusive step-father.
She soon left school and found a job at stationers and toy store Leisure Time.
“I drank after hours and in the weekends rather excessively. I never drank to enjoy a drink. I drank for the oblivion it would give me from what I didn’t want to remember.”
At 16 or 17, she was sent to Hanmer Springs.
“I hitch-hiked down there. Truck drivers picked me up… It was a whole lot safer than now.”
Since that short two months of treatment in the early 1980s, she has not drunk since.
But a desire to then study nursing fell flat when she wasn’t accepted into the small class at Tauranga Hospital.
“At that time I just saw death or jail. I didn’t see my life going forward.”
However an invitation from an old friend to visit England set her up.
“I had enough money for a one-way ticket… and I clearly remember my mother saying ‘if you get in trouble over there don’t think you’re calling us’.
“Next thing I remember is sitting on the plane saying ‘my life, my rules’ so that was the beginning of some awesome decisions.”
She even bumped into Elton John while working in the private Princess Margaret Hospital in Windsor, just outside of London.
“Even though I didn’t get accepted for nursing here I pursued that path… because I loved what I was doing I asked questions, I showed initiative. And after nine years in England I went on to America and worked in a private hospital in the operating room because of the experience I had.”
Eventually she ended up taking care of people in their own homes, including a doctor’s wife who had fallen off her bike and been in a coma for three months.
“She had a catheter, a feeding tube and a tracheotomy, her eyes couldn’t focus. The husband wanted to bring her home, there was nothing more they could do.”
Petersen cared for her for nine months - “longer than anybody had expected.”
And her reputation led to the offer in Hawaii.
“They said this man had suspected lung cancer, hadn’t been to the doctor in years, had congestive heart failure, a brain aneurysm and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, he was 50 pound underweight and he was six three.
“He lived for seven and a half years and he didn’t die of lung cancer, he had an aortic aneurysm.”
Coming back to New Zealand though hasn’t really met her expectations.
“I was brought up in the Maori culture and it was being among the Hawaians that gave me the desire to come home. If I’d known then what I know now I wouldn’t have come,” she said with a wry smile.
After 18 months in Tauranga she’s treating a return to Taupō as an opportunity.
“What’s happened, has happened, it can’t be undone… how we think about it and the attention we give it, we have the power to change...
“I really want to use what I feel is a gift. I don’t have the pieces of paper but I have a wealth of experience and I’m really looking to help somebody to be able to stay in their own home, be that private carer to help in whatever way is needed.”
Sheree Petersen can be contacted on 021 090 00099.