Don’t be fooled. A slim stature, soft blue eyes and hands that move with a conductor’s grace belie the fact that Lynette Hutson is a formidable advocate and a shining example of compassionate determination.
Krista Ferguson profiles this Salvation Army Major who has provided leadership to many in the treatment and rehabilitation sectors.
With responsibility for the Salvation Army’s alcohol and other drug programmes, supportive accommodation and prisoner rehabilitation, Lynette Hutson rarely pauses for breath.
Born into five generations of Salvation Army in Gore in 1954, Hutson left Christchurch’s Linwood High School at 17, met Ian when she was 19 and married him two years later.
A pivotal moment in her life occurred when she was just 21 and her three-week-old son died of cot death. Thirty years later, his death still haunts and drives her. It underpins her faith and her feeling that, no matter how low someone falls, they can change.
“While I wouldn’t wish that experience on anybody, it has given me so much direction in my life. I never had a sense of giving up on people.”
It was the deciding moment that set her away from the path of just settling for “a nice house with children”.
Hutson trained to be a Salvation Army officer in 1982 and, following several New Zealand appointments, she and Ian were asked to take on Harbour Light community service in Winnipeg, Canada.
The level of inequality in Winnipeg was the worst she had ever seen. She says the spirit had been “knocked out” of the Native American population with high levels of alcohol and other drug abuse, violence, child sexual abuse and deprivation.
“I remember going to one house on Christmas Eve and it was icy cold. We’d taken a Christmas parcel to Lena, one of the little girls from Harbour Light’s children’s feeding programme.
“When the door opened, there was this pathetic looking Christmas tree with a few paper decorations. There was nothing else in the room, and there was no food. Around the kitchen table were eight Native American males blind drunk and with bottles and bottles of booze.”
Lena’s older sister ran away that Christmas preferring to survive on scrap food in the shopping malls rather than return home.
Experiences in Winnipeg developed Hutson’s thinking around the need for addressing change in the wider systems surrounding individuals.
“Systems impact on people’s lives and their powerlessness – they’re in the cycle, and they can’t get out of it. It’s intergenerational. They need someone else to support them to break the cycle.”
After Canada, the Hutsons returned to work at the Salvation Army’s alcohol and drug addiction Bridge programme. After completing a post-graduate diploma in social work, Hutson had her first leadership role as Director of the Christchurch Bridge programme in 2000.
Her approach to negotiating programme funding was “refreshing” according to former Minister for Drug Policy Jim Anderton.
“She had a way of being an equal in a partnership. It was, ‘We want to find out how we can work together and we can help you help us.’”
But it was Hutson’s care for people that most impressed when she showed him around a rehabilitation unit.
“She was very familiar with staff and had an easy relationship even though she was a senior officer. She was on easy terms with residents and so obviously interested and compassionate.”
New Zealand Drug Foundation Executive Director Ross Bell says Hutson shines as an advocate.
“She has a real intelligence mixed with fabulous grace, which makes her formidable when talking with politicians.”
Her leadership abilities were recognised by Salvation Army high command, and a role as National Manager Addictions Services and Supportive Accommodation soon followed.
In the seven years she’s been in charge, the budget has doubled to $18 million. On any given day, her 300 staff deal with over a thousand cases in the Bridge programme and provide services for young pregnant women, the intellectually disabled, ex-prisoners and people battling gambling problems.
In an average week, Hutson works at least 60 hours and usually takes several national flights. She’s on national addictions reference groups and is often called into one-off government consultations. Last year, she was part of the New Zealand delegation to a United Nations Consultation on International Drug Policy in Vienna.
Time off is precious. Hutson sings in two church groups to relax and loves being with her family including her four children, Greg, Craig, Collette and Simon.
She can’t explain how she sustains her energy levels but, unlike others with stressful jobs, she doesn’t use alcohol to relax. Salvation Army officers do not drink but have worked with those who do since the organisation’s founding in 1878.
The Salvation Army’s major social report, due to be released later this year, is on alcohol. It will move the movement’s stance on alcohol issues up a notch, she says.
“We have allowed our culture to get to the point where anyone speaking against alcohol is looked upon as a wowser.
“The word ‘temperance’ means moderation. We’ve come to associate it with people carrying banners saying ‘the demon drink’. That’s hijacked any voice of moderation saying we’re harming ourselves, our children and our community.”
She doesn’t agree with the ‘nanny state’ argument.
“I believe there is a duty of care. We are our brother’s keeper. If we want a better world, some of us have to take a bit of flak.”
Hutson thinks the Salvation Army will fall from favour with the alcohol industry. Half of her is nervous, and half of her says “bring it on!”
Odyssey House Chief Executive Chris Kalin says Hutson has what it takes to convey strategic arguments with “great gusto, passion and clarity”.
“She’s little – there’s almost a fragility about her – however, she’s a formidable woman.”
Ross Bell says, “People can be cynical and wary of ‘do gooders’, and Hutson rocks up in her Salvation Army uniform. She brings a real rawness. You expect a certain thing but she surprises people with her reality and humanity.”
In or out of uniform, Hutson takes every opportunity to talk about the problems she sees.
“Who would choose to be addicted, who would wake up every day and say, ‘I am going to be a hopeless alcoholic’? Of course they don’t want to be there,” she says.
“These are not people who are shameful failures. They are people who are your friends, your neighbours, your family – and they deserve the opportunity to get back on track.”
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