We’ll probably never know for sure, but Shona suspects that her little brother, Roderick, might be the oldest person with Down syndrome in Aotearoa. Shona was two when Roderick was born, and the two have now been blessed with 75 years (and counting) of a loving sibling relationship which has helped shape the lives of many other families as well as their own, through the pioneering work of Hōhepa, which came about because of Roderick’s birth.
Shona and Roderick Stronach were born in the 1940s, and spent their early years with their parents and older twin sisters, Marian and Marjorie, on the wild and rugged Highcliff area of the Otago Peninsula, where the family had a clifftop farm. Shona only has vague memories of Roderick crawling along the passageways of that home, as both were still quite small when the family relocated to the gentler vicinity of Tomohawk Lagoon.
“We bordered that lagoon and we had a wonderful life,” Shona recalls. “And of course there are a lot of stories about Roderick’s adventures there! He was a great one to run away. Once, we couldn’t find him and our mother found him right down the bottom of the next-door paddock – he was under the legs of a bull!”
It was a large family home, and Shona and Roderick spent much of their time playing together there.
“We had this big veranda and we had this four-wheel jigger thing that I used to push him in. We created ghost trains and things like that,” Shona laughed as she recalled these early years together. “I was obviously a fairly helpful caregiver in terms of entertainment! Those were lovely memories.”
Shona can’t recall any negative attitudes towards Roderick – only the care of the neighbours. She also can’t remember her parents discussing the fact that Roderick had Down syndrome with her, or that she had much consciousness of it at all until the age of about 12.
“I do remember at early adolescence being self-conscious and realising he was different, and having to really grow to accommodate that over, maybe two or three years coming to terms with it.”
From his youngest years, Roderick possessed a friendly, warm, and radiant nature. “At family picnics you’d look around and say ‘Where’s Roderick?’ and he’d be off with the next group saying “I know you!” That’s lasted his lifetime those words – ‘I know you!’ – and that lovely friendliness and warmth.”
At that time, integrated or mainstream schooling weren’t options for Roderick, and so from the ages of seven to about ten, he attended Sarah Cohen School in Dunedin, a school established for pupils with special needs in 1926 that is still going strong today. Roderick was not academic, and though he learned some letters there he never became fully literate.
In the background of the family’s lives, since the time of Roderick’s birth, their aunt, Marjorie Allan, had been pursuing ambitious goals that were inspired by her new nephew. At the time, Marjorie was overseas in London studying the work of Rudolph Steiner. When Roderick came along, she decided to move into training for therapeutic education and social therapy for people with intellectual disabilities based on Rudolph Steiner.
“When Roderick was born she came back to meet him, then she returned to Europe and trained in the various Rudolph Steiner curative and therapeutic homes and schools where that work was developed and gathered up as much experience as she could. And then in 1956 she came back and toured New Zealand and lectured about the work, needing funds of course. When she was in Hawke’s Bay, a farmer called Lew Harris who had an intellectually disabled daughter, came forward and really wanted to help with the work, and was a really generous benefactor and donor.”
Thanks to Lew Harris (later Sir Harris), in 1957 the very first Hōhepa building was erected in Poraiti in the Hawke’s Bay, and became a residential school, initially for only nine children. One year later, a ten-year-old Roderick joined Hōhepa. After a short time in the school, he moved on to the newly acquired farm property in Clive, where he was to spend the next six decades of his life.
Two years after Roderick made the move to Hawke’s Bay, Shona and her mother followed, their father having passed away.
“My mother, Mary Stronach, took on the management and care of the house with the children and that freed up my aunt to concentrate on the valuable teaching and therapeutic work. My mother had a very important role holding the whole management together in terms of practicalities. She was good value! I went to Napier Girls High School but I lived there [at Hōhepa]. So it was an interesting time!”
By this stage there were about 24 children, living in dormitories of six to eight, each cared for by women known as ‘dormitory mothers’. Though he was now living at the farm in Clive, Shona and her mother were thrilled to be reunited with both Roderick and Marjorie.
“You have your own life too by that age, so it was an interesting transition, but I was always very grateful for what I learned and received through Hōhepa. As a teenager you don’t always recognise it at the time! But I mean really it was wonderful. I got a chance to be one of the dormitory mothers on the weekend and I began to take responsibility which is good for teenagers.”
Once at the farm, Roderick initially lived at the main house and underwent some transitional schooling, alongside craft work, music, and therapies. At the beginning of his teens, he went to live at Anyon House, one of several small houses for around half a dozen residents at a time. At about this time, his mother and aunt purchased a beach house at Waipatiki that was to become a second home for the family.
“We’d all be there for weekends or holidays and my sisters would come down too. So this beach at Waipatiki was very special and a lot of the people who worked at Hōhepa shared that as well.”
Over the next sixty years, Roderick moved through various stages of life at the farm, always directed by his preferences and aspirations.
“He moved himself through his life stages at the farm, he was a farmer and a gardener, and used to get the milk and work the cows. Then he moved into the workshops and did woodwork and then there was the copper workshop. Each time he would let people know he wanted to move on.”
As he got older, Roderick struggled with the noise of the copper workshops, having never liked loud sounds. He chose to move on to the candle workshop, before eventually selecting what he termed ‘Quiet Care’ – the retirement home section of the Hōhepa community where he still lives. Though he has many interests, two in particular stand out to Shona that he’s been able to enjoy more, once moving into retirement.
“He carries an enormous interest of the officialdom of all the meetings that he’d been to with my aunt and the Trust Board and conferences. That was in him, and he’d take his bundles of papers and do his office work. In 2018, he was given honorary life membership to the Hōhepa Homes Trust Board.”
The other great love of Roderick’s life has been classical music – unsurprising when considering both his mother and aunt began their careers as music teachers before the Hōhepa journey began.
“He always wanted to be a conductor, if there were any musicians around or bands at the fair or anything, he would be up there conducting and he was good too. Music was one of his real loves and he still has that.”
Now an “elderly and distinguished gentleman”, for the past year or so, Roderick has been unable to weight bear, and prefers to spend most of his time in his room. “But he’s still very present. I was there last week and we had such a good time – the cat had got up on the arm of his chair and was determined to interject in our conversations. It was lovely, Roderick was right on the ball. But then the next day he was just so tired.”
Although less physically capable, Roderick’s mind is unaffected by dementia, and he retains the ability to “just radiate” that Shona recalls characterising him from his infancy.
“He never had any shyness. He would just go up to people. His “I know you”, that was to strangers, but people he knew he would say ‘Are you happy?’ He’s 75 and that’s the main thing that he says now – ‘Are you happy?’. It was like, when you reach out to somebody you’re telling them that you recognise them. So that’s followed him all his life. He has a lot of humour and I think I played up a lot with that too in terms of the fun and the games and the songs, you know. Even now he’s not so capable but he can come up with some incredible humour. He’s got a twinkle in his eye behind what he’s saying.”
Shona lives in Christchurch now, but the siblings have never stopped seeing each other multiple times a year, and their bond is indelibly strong. “When we’re together there’s no barriers between us, we’ve got a good rapport.”
Just as Roderick’s arrival started her mother and aunt on an extraordinary journey that would ultimately found the beloved Hōhepa organisation, so too was Roderick always a part of Shona’s life pathways.
“As a 5-year-old I announced I wanted to be a children’s nurse when I grew up. And that resolve followed and shaped my career decisions throughout my life. I trained as a nurse and stayed close to the work with children. I lived up in Hawke’s Bay for ten years and for a good six of those I was working as a community nurse at Hōhepa. I think the care model which surrounded Roderick very much influenced the course of my life.”
Today, Hōhepa has branches in Canterbury, Auckland, and Wellington, as well as the original community in the Hawke’s Bay incorporating both the original school community at Poraiti, and the 50-acre Clive farming and workshop community where Roderick lives.
“Some might say that Hōhepa is an institution but it’s not. It’s a community of people and wonderful people that come and go from all over the world… The essence of Hōhepa is community and it still is, it’s not institutionalising. I know Hōhepa’s had to work very creatively to retain community but also to be out in the wider community. It has widened its web but it hasn’t lost its community sense.”
It’s a community – and now series of communities – that have made an immense difference to so many lives: residents, students, staff, volunteers, and Trustees, and without Roderick Stronach, who knows if it would have ever come to pass? Shona speaks with an incredible warmth, respect, and love for her mother and aunt, and for the many others who have worked to continue their legacy at Hōhepa. But most of all, her affection shines through when she speaks about her brother.
“I hope I’ve given you a reasonable picture of somebody who is very special.”