Some of our readers may have seen a recent clip on Seven Sharp which visited a new facility for the training of guide dogs which Blind Low Vision has created at its premises in Manurewa. You will not have been aware of the Whitianga connection to this project.
The facility, only the second of its kind in the world, was designed to train guide dogs and their owners to negotiate issues of access and pedestrian movement in everyday life. It incorporates access to transport, street and pedestrian experiences, and negotiating escalators, stairs and a lift, with all these cleverly laid out in a surprisingly small space. Previously, to train and expose the guide dogs and their new owners to such situations, would have involved much travel and time around the city, but now the new facility encapsulates all of the problems and experiences in the immediate space of the organisation.
On entering the facility, the first stop is to climb on to a railway carriage with a step up and then a space set out exactly like on a train with a row of seats and the pole standing commuters would hold on to. Then down a narrow ramp with New Zealand scenes along the sides and plane engine noises as one enters a flight cabin reduced in size but complete with overhead lockers and Air New Zealand livery on the seats. Greg Foran, the chief executive of the airline, had a personal role in providing this area. Next is a bus with the steps up into the seating area again. Then out on to the street with gutters and kerb channelling and the footpath alongside with varying heights replicating car access ways. Halfway along there is a pedestrian crossing with the button to push and the buzzing sound when the pedestrian can cross. At end of the area there is an escalator and alongside a corridor with chairs and tables like a cafe on the footpath to be negotiated. This leads to a flight of steps and a platform where there is a lift. The whole range of experiences has been so cleverly constructed and contained in the space available. Even while we were there, trainers were taking new young dogs through the experiences.
This facility along with an adjoining recreation area was formally opened on Tuesday, 21 March and Alison and I had the privilege and pleasure of attending the ceremony. There had been an earlier ceremony at 5.30 am when the Tainui Kaumatua blessed the site. This group attended the opening ceremony as well, offering a stirring karakia. The speakers were John Mulka, Chief Executive of Blind Low Vision, Clive Lansink, Chair of their Board, and particularly impressive were The Hon Priyanca Radhakrishnan, Minister for Disability Issues and Paula Tesorierio, Chief Executive, Ministry for Disabled People. Paula, an amputee and a Paralympian with a gold and 2 bronze medals to her name, was formerly the Disability Commissioner. These two women were passionate and inspirational for their cause.
The name, Lionel Meredith will mean little to readers but he has played an outstanding part in the creation of the training facility. Lionel was born in South Africa in 1932. Nothing is really known of his earlier life, family or background. He had one sister who lived unmarried in Germany and who had died long ago. Lionel was concerned about the political situation in South Africa and in the early 80’s he decided to leave the country. He did so by building his own 40-foot yacht, learning navigation and then sailing mostly solo, crossed the Atlantic, visiting countries on the coast of South America before sailing through the Panama Canal on to New Zealand where he arrived in 1986.
The sextant and ship’s clock used for his navigation have found a good home with the Auckland. Maritime Museum.
It is not known why he chose Whitianga, but in 2001 he bought a small 2-bedroom home on Cook Drive where he lived until his death in 2019. Lionel lived quietly and frugally and drove an old Toyota Corolla as his transport. He loved travelling and walking. He was very fit, could be found in any corner of Mercury Bay on a stroll. He loved chatting to people on the way – his form of socialising.
Lionel travelled widely both around the world and in New Zealand, until the age of 80. He purchased investment properties usually in an unfashionable location or of a type of investment not widely favoured. For example, he bought a commercial building in Whanganui, and a half a floor of a commercial building in Hamilton. For me, as his lawyer over those years, he provided constant surprises.
In 2002, he came in one day to make a will. We went through the formalities of what was involved. His was an unusual situation – no living family, no close friends to consider one who might be trustee. The conversation turned to charities as the beneficiaries. Lionel stated that he had always had an interest in guide dogs and would like to leave his estate for the training of guide dogs. The will was drawn accordingly. Lionel did not want a trustee company to be involved and I agreed to accept the role of trustee.
In 2020, Lionel wanted to change a light bulb in his garage. Whether he just fell from the ladder or was electrocuted and thrown from his ladder is not known, but he suffered serious injuries from which sadly, he died on 3 December 2019, aged 88.
The role of trustee in this situation is quite challenging. There was no one to step in and deal with the house and its contents. It was to be Alison and me. We felt like intruders as we went to his house, opening every drawer and cupboard making decisions on all the contents with advice or guidance from no one.
If you live alone you might think about that in your own situation! As it turned out, several local charities did benefit, and we eventually cleared Lionel’s house.
Blind Low Vision was advised that it was the beneficiary in the estate but at that point, no figures were available as to the money involved. Throughout the year, his properties gradually throughout the next year but it was wonderful for Ussher Law who were handling the estate to be able to confirm to Blind Low Vision that the net proceeds of the estate were just under $3 million and this is the amount they received as the beneficiary in the estate. The cost of the training facility was around $5million, so Lionel’s benevolence came at just the right time for the organisation.
Why did we go to the opening? Because of Lionel’s personal circumstances there was no one who might represent him, and we felt this was not right. Because of my earlier association, I was the only one who could be that representative and so we decided to go.
The staff at Blind Low Vision were most appreciative that they had someone who they could thank personally for Lionel’s generosity, and we really had Lionel on our shoulders and in our hearts throughout that morning.
I hope that Lionel rests in peace with a humble satisfaction that his life was worthwhile. This quiet, unassuming gentle man has certainly left his mark in a way that will enhance the lives of so many people in the future. Has any Whitianga person given more away?
Caption: “..in 2001 he bought a small 2-bedroom home on Cook Drive where he lived until his death in 2019.”