Deputy Mayor, Family Man

Justin Lester. You may know him as Wellington’s Deputy Mayor, or perhaps as the Councillor for the Northern Ward? Or maybe you know him as the super-smiley Johnsonville local, who loves his family and the place in which he lives? Recently we got to know how family tragedy shaped his philosophy, and when The Neonatal Trust swooped in to support the Lester clan in their time of need.

 

I first really experienced the heart of a community after my Father passed away. We were living in Invercargill which is an extremely tight-knit community where people look out for each other and are quick to lend a hand. When the sad news spread, everyone pitched in and helped our family out. We didn’t have a car, so friends would come and give me and my brothers rides to sports and school. Our teachers were amazing and bent over backwards to help, and if money was ever an issue, someone always managed to make it work so we never missed out.

I owe a huge personal debt to that community because I relied on the goodwill and generosity of others. Without those people, I wouldn’t have had the same opportunities. I fully acknowledge them and am so grateful. Now I want to ensure others have the same opportunities I have had in life.

Now I live in Johnsonville with my wife and two little girls. I love the fact that it’s a hugely diverse place and very grounded. We are proud of our community spirit and our history in a quiet and determined way. Lots of people have lived here for a long time and the notion of volunteerism and community service is exceptionally strong.

Wellingtonians and New Zealanders in general are extremely hospitable, open and tolerant – that’s one thing I love about living here. Newcomers often report back how helpful people are and how safe they feel, which is a real luxury for us to have as a city and as a country.

Working in local government most of the people I see every day are doing what they do because they want to do the best for Wellington and Wellingtonians. I am continually amazed at the lengths people go to, helping others out and making lives more enjoyable – be it in our libraries, our pools or our social housing projects.

We have amazing support in this country when it comes to looking after one-another. We felt this recently when our family had a gut wrenching experience which involved the life of my daughter Harriet. My wife Liz was 30 weeks pregnant with our second child when one night she suddenly woke up because she thought her waters might have partly broken. We were uncertain, but her intuition kicked in and we contacted our Midwife who told us to come into hospital immediately. As it turned out, Liz didn’t end up leaving until Harriet was born. Harriet was eventually born after two weeks in hospital with a gestation period of 32 and a half weeks.

Our biggest scare came after we’d been home with Harriet for four days. She caught a cold and was unresponsive so we took her to the emergency department to be checked out. After the initial assessment we thought she would be okay. But the NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit) demanded to see her because she was still very small and they took her into observation. Within a matter of hours both her lungs had collapsed and she was on intubation and ventilation. It can be pretty terrifying when your precious wee baby is struggling to stay alive – you feel helpless and stressed. Had they not responded so quickly it’s likely she would have died.

Tiny woollen clothes are donated to The Neonatal Trust by kind Kiwi knitters.

Tiny woollen clothes are donated to The Neonatal Trust by kind Kiwi knitters.

When the chips were really down, The Neonatal Trust and NICU were there. There are little things that the Trust do, like collecting stories of parents with premature babies which are displayed on the walls – these stories give so much hope. We also received things like tiny premature sized clothing because we weren’t able to find anything that would fit such a small baby, and they lent us a breast pump for expressing milk because Harriet needed to be tube fed. We were lucky because we lived in Wellington, but other parents are flown in from all over the country and don’t have loved ones around them. Supportive teams make sure that nearby accommodation is taken care of. The ongoing moral support we have received was just incredible.

Our experience has certainly brought us closer together as a family, and made us realise how helpless we are in the event of a medical emergency. We relied completely on the professionalism and guidance of NICU staff to get our baby through. The support and comfort of The Neonatal Trust let us know we weren’t in it alone as there are thousands of Kiwi families who have premature babies each year.

As I reflect on all the experiences that have brought me here, I know that the most important thing I can give is time. Be it at home with my family, or trying to help someone that has hit an obstacle, these are the most satisfying things for me now.


There are 23 neonatal units in New Zealand, and every year over 5,000 babies are cared for.

The Wellington NICU alone cared for over 1,000 babies last year – The Neonatal Trust, along with support information, handed out over 700 pairs of booties!

The Neonatal Trust is one of One Percent Collective's partner charities. If you'd like to support them with your 1%, just click below. Cheers!