Farmer, personal trainer, mental health advocate and self-confessed ‘energizer bunny’ - just a few of the many ways to describe Felicity Clark.
Felicity, or Fliss, as she’s known, farms with her husband Kevin in the Waimana region in the Bay of Plenty. She’s so well-known here she’s something of a local celebrity, even though she wouldn’t admit it or want a fuss made.
Fliss’ story starts 24 years ago when she tragically lost her two-year-old daughter Sinead to leukaemia. Understandably, Fliss says she “lost the plot” and her grief almost overwhelmed her.
Lifting for a lift
So, in 1998 she converted a woolshed on a local farm, that used to be owned by Kevin’s brother Bernie and his wife Faye, into a gym, and trained to become a personal trainer.
“I wanted to do something that would help others in our community as well as myself”, says Fliss. “Doing positive things for people is a real passion of mine and health and fitness has helped me through a lot of challenges in my life. I wanted to give other people an opportunity to experience that too as I’m a firm believer that a healthy mind needs a healthy body.”
But even energizer bunnies need a break sometimes and the woolshed gym operated for five years before Fliss started to feel a little burnt out and switched her focus to her family.
Fast-forward a few years and in 2010 Fliss was approached by a local lady who was struggling with her health and looking for a personal trainer. With the gym bug beginning to bite again she was eager to help but was also keen to take it to the next level.
“A few years before that, we had bought the neighbour’s farm but had no use for a second cowshed. I just thought that would make a great gym.”
Fliss went about setting up the shed with a bike, rower and a few weights and as word spread in the community, more and more people wanted to come and exercise. Not wanting to turn anyone away, Fliss converted the calf-rearing shed next door.
A flipping good time with tyres
Self-confessed ‘energizer bunny' Felicity Clark
“I managed to get some corrugated iron to cover the ends, some mill felt to put down on the saw dust and pieces of astro turf to cover the cow yard”, says Fliss. “We didn’t have a lot of other equipment, so I made up some sand bags, and bought some rubber tubing for resistance.”
The makeshift gym attracted media attention from several local papers and TVNZ’s Seven Sharp programme.
“I didn’t want the coverage to be about fundraising”, she says. “Up until then the gym was running on a generator but when people saw the stories, they took it upon themselves to pitch in to help get mains power connected so it could run as a proper gym.”
Fliss says she was stunned by the support of people she didn’t even know.
“Gordon and Dean Faber from Independent Refrigeration in Whakatane came out to dig a trench for the cables and a group of their staff volunteered to help get the power connected. Z Energy in Tauranga donated quite a bit of money and an electrician from Auckland came all the way down here with a couple of boxes of cables and plugs.”
Over time, and with a big helping of Kiwi ingenuity and goodwill, the gym is now well equipped with treadmills, rowers, bikes, weight benches, a range of weight training equipment and more than 30 regular members. Celebrating its 10th anniversary recently, it’s also become an important hub for the community, hosting BBQs and get-togethers for local farming families.
The gym has never been about making money – in fact Fliss reckons she’s invested about $20,000 in it over the last ten years, all from the farm’s pocket. It’s just as well the mental health side of her passion for helping people only costs some baking supplies and a cup of tea, because Fliss’ door has always been open to people in the community for a catch-up and a chin wag.
Through these catch-ups Fliss noticed that mental health and stress were starting to become issues for some, and she often took on the role of part-time counsellor.
No pain, no gain
“Because I’ve been there myself and I know what it’s like, I suppose I’m more attuned to the signs that someone is struggling. Farming can be stressful and because there is still such a stigma attached to mental health issues it can be hard to break down those barriers, but I can’t say no to helping people, it’s just something I’ve done for the 30 years I’ve lived in this area. Just like a healthy mind needs a healthy body, a healthy body also needs and deserves a healthy mind too.”
Two years ago, Fliss took another step in her mission to help people and completed a Diploma in Psychology and Counselling. It ‘formalised’ what she’d already been doing for years – listening and creating a safe and comfortable environment where people know they won’t be judged.
Self-confessed ‘energizer bunny' Felicity Clark
“It’s when you meet face-to-face for a cuppa and ask them if they are actually ok that the honesty comes out. In my experience people aren’t going to look at apps or go online or even come to discussion groups for help, especially if they don’t realise or admit they are struggling or depressed. Often, they will just bury their head in the sand and hope things will improve without realising that there are things they can do or ‘tools’ they can use to create their own pathway to feeling better. To be in a position to show people those ways is really rewarding. Recently someone rang me to say thanks because they were on the edge and now they’re feeling much better. That’s worth a million dollars to me.”
“The thing about mental health issues is that they can happen to anyone. People look at me as this bouncy and positive energizer bunny but what they don’t realise is that I been through a lot of tough challenges in my life and I’ve come through the other side. I want to show people they can do it too. I’m the person I am today because whatever happened in the past was not going to define me and my life is moving forward.”