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Found her farm . . . Waitaki Boys’ High School Don House pastoral care manager Gem Marsh. PHOTO: KAYLA HODGE

Three years ago, Gem Marsh left the United Kingdom with just a backpack.
She had no set plans for her overseas travels, other than wanting to end up in New Zealand.

‘‘I didn’t know why, just something pulled me to New Zealand since I was a kid,’’ Miss Marsh said.

After spending four months backpacking through Asia, and eight weeks in Australia — which ‘‘burns the pocket quick’’ — she started searching for jobs in New Zealand, two days before she was due to arrive.

She secured a dairy farm job in Peebles — ‘‘so standard Kiwi’’ — and moved straight to Waitaki on arrival.

As well as working on the farm, she also picked up waitressing shifts at Fat Sally’s Pub and Restaurant, which helped her learn a lot more about the district and the people.

Chatting with some Fat Sally’s regulars, Miss Marsh, who previously worked with troubled children in England, revealed she missed working with teenagers.

‘‘They were like, ‘Waitaki Boys’ needs someone like you’.’’

In February 2020, Miss Marsh was appointed as Don House’s pastoral care manager.
She moved into the Waitaki Boys’ hostel in March, and had one day to settle in, before the first lockdown.

Having all the pupils return home, or to homestays, for lockdown made Miss Marsh’s first weeks in the role difficult, especially because she had not working in boarding before, but speaking to pupils on the phone helped connect her quickly.

Two years later, she is well settled and connected.

Her role involved everything from arranging appointments, staying on top of pupils’ academics, medical issues and leave forms, to providing mental health and behavioural support.

Looking after Don House’s 50 pupils, alongside hostel manager Scott Mayhew, had been an incredible experience, and Waitaki Boys’ rector Darryl Paterson had been very supportive.

‘‘[Darryl’s] let me give the boys a chance, who might not necessarily have had one before. You could give the boys a home which they might not necessarily have,’’ she said.

Working with Mr Mayhew had been a ‘‘game changer’’, as their passion, work ethic and ‘‘love for the boys’’ clicked.

‘‘We just bounce really well off each other.’’

Seeing the pupils go through challenges and come out the other side, and helping families repair relationships, had been rewarding, she said.

‘‘Even if that then means the boy leaves us and returns home, it’s all for the right reasons, and it’s really lovely to see that you were able to kind of support that family.’’

When Miss Marsh worked for Early Help and Preventive Services in the UK, her team used to say if they won the lottery they would open a farm, as an extended home for children who came from hardship.

‘‘When I came here and kind of realised what the boys had been through . . . I said to my team ‘I’ve found my farm’.’’

Miss Marsh knew first hand about hardship — and it was her own experiences that led her to work with teenagers.

‘‘My background is more colourful than any of the boys I’ve got here,’’ she said.

Growing up in Orpington, Bromley, Miss Marsh’s family was not well off, and she went to one of the worst schools in England.

‘‘The minute you were there, people wrote you off already.

‘‘We were always told . . . I don’t know why [you] bother anyway — by the time you’re 16 you’ll either be in prison, pregnant or dead.’’

If it was not for a couple of teachers and her school dean, Miss Marsh is not sure where she would be. They looked at the bigger picture, she said.

‘‘Rather than pulling us up for turning up to school with the wrong shoes on, [my dean] knew that we’d probably walked out of something worse. He just always made us feel wanted.’’

Miss Marsh never felt like she fitted in in her hometown.

She felt a great responsibility for taking care of her younger siblings, always worked multiple jobs, and became the first person in her immediate family to get a passport.

She always wanted to travel, and dipped her toes in the water with trips around Europe and then Bali. When she returned home after three weeks in Bali, she packed her bags for an adventure.

New Zealand’s slow-paced lifestyle had been an adjustment, but being surrounded by such wonderful scenery, especially having the Waitaki lakes ‘‘on tap’’, was amazing, she said.

‘‘The quality of life here is so much better and the sense of community — I’ve not seen anything like it before.’’

At present, Miss Marsh is working towards gaining New Zealand residency — and she had plenty of positive plans for Don House.

‘‘Scott always says, ‘It’s not a job, it’s a lifestyle’ — and that hits the nail on the head.

‘‘I feel like there’s a lot more to be done here, and real positive stuff too.’’