News | 6 December 2021
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20 Twenty One: Wendi Henderson

She’s a former captain of the Football Ferns and earned 64 caps – including appearances at two FIFA World Cups. She scored 28 international goals during a glittering career – but at the same time she’s risen from an apprenticeship to help steer Parks, Sport and Rec. Now Wendi’s job is to keep us all safe and secure.

Wendi Henderson wearing a black beanie and jumper with an orange high-vis vest on top, tilting her head down towards the long grass in which she is standing and is pictured out of focus.

Where were you born and bred?

I’m Wellington born and bred. Grew up in the Eastern Suburbs and did all my schooling locally – Miramar South School, Evans Bay Intermediate, Wellington East Girls College.


When did you join the Council?

October 1995. I had a friend who’d recently joined Parks and Gardens and recommended it. We’d both previously worked as gardeners at Government House. We’re both still here at the Council.


I got the earlier job at Government House straight from school – I left in the sixth form. Sport was already playing a big part in my life – I was playing top-level football –  and softball for Broadway which had a renowned women’s team at the time.


I remember I went up there for my interview with a guy named John Leach – he said ‘you play softball, don’t you?’ We chatted about softball for a bit and then he said ‘OK we’ll see you on Monday’ – and that was it – I left school and started work. My main driver was that I was playing a lot of sport so I wanted to earn money to fund the trips.


In those days Government House had 25 gardeners – and a huge vege garden that supplied the main house. Every Christmas the gardeners would have their party and the Governor-General would give each of us a 40-ounce bottle of whatever spirit we wanted – it was brilliant and I guess what used to happen back in those days.


What was your first role here?

It was a three-week fixed term contract at the Botanic Gardens – covering a gap on the horticulture apprentice roster. I remember being interviewed by Peter Tijsen and Neil Christensen and I instantly knew this was the right place for me – really good people, really good feel to the place…


The three weeks got extended for a further three months. By that time I’d had six years’ gardening experience – they said why don’t you do your apprenticeship and get your papers behind you – you’ll fly through it. And they were right – I’ve never looked back.

Wendi Henderson, pictured in black and white, on the soccer field wearing the gear, with her arms in the air in front of her defeated-looking opponent, after scoring her first ever goal for New Zealand  in Brisbane 1989.
Wendi's first-ever goal for New Zealand, v Australia, Brisbane 1989. (We won 2-0)

As part of the roster you were moved around every three months. I started in the Bot Gardens nursery and then got sent to Otari-Wilton’s Bush which sealed the deal for me – it’s such a fantastic place to work in and learn. Then I came back to the main gardens and did all the bedding and planting of tulips with Jeff Paris.


The Council still runs the same apprenticeship system – we’ve got 10 horticultural apprentices going through the scheme at any given time. Leanne Killalea (an apprentice herself from many years ago) runs that programme – we continue to train and grow and develop!


Apprenticeships went out of fashion across many sectors but in Parks, Sport and Recreation (PSR) we’ve never stopped. When I look around this organisation and see how many people went through that programme who are still with us today – the likes of Leanne, Vikki Muxlow, Anita Benbrook, Jeff Paris, Phillipa Garratt…we’ve all stuck around and progressed onto other roles.


What roles have you held since?

I’ve worked in Parks and Gardens (now PSR) for most of my time here. My roles have included: Apprentice Gardener (2 years); Gardener at the Bolton St Cemetery (18 months); Rose Gardens Team Leader (2.5 years); Parks and Gardens HR & Health & Safety Officer (5 years); PSR Operations Manager (15 years).


When I was in the cemetery we used to spend half our time trying to scare the s*** out of each other – but it was also a really lovely place. It was like we were looking after all these early settlers – people like Robert Hannah (Hannahs shoes) and his wife, James Smith, William Wakefield and Samuel Parnell who helped shape the eight-hour working day.


One day there was a woman there doing some painting. She was doing lovely atmospheric stuff in oils – of the graves, the trees, the landscape – so I bought a couple of prints off her, which I’ve got at home. I’ve got some great memories of the place and it makes me remember the pride I took in my work there.

Wendi Henderson wearing a black cap, blue shorts and t-shirt and lanyard, sitting in the black New Zealand-branded seats in a stadium with blue seats behind.

What was your first management role?

We’d just gone through a restructure and Paul [Andrews] had become head of Parks and Gardens. There was a new role called HR and Health and Safety – it was set up to standardise our H&S processes across our business unit and align them with corporate council. It was a great role which I helped shape and deliver on some new initiatives. I did that for five years and during that time Paul supported me in getting my Diploma in Health and Safety – which I was very grateful for.


After that?

Then I got the Operations Manager role – looking after 90 staff. We fully moved into the Newtown Depot in the early 2000s – it had been the base for all the Council’s painters and bricklayers and electricians – all of that had been outsourced.


My teams delivered all the maintenance services such as tree work, sportsfields maintenance and renewals, weed control, beach cleaning, horticultural work and mowing services. We’re unique in that the Council delivers those services in-house still – which is great as we get passionate people wanting to give back to the city and do something they love. I was the same which is why I loved what I was doing – ensuring the places and spaces across the city looked good and were usable for all.


I really enjoyed the relationship-building side of the role – especially relating to sportsfields because you’re obviously dealing with the sporting codes, from the CEs of regional sporting organisations to community club level. Working with the professional entities like the Phoenix and the Hurricanes was also really enjoyable.


I think Wellingtonians do appreciate what they’ve got – one of the cool things about lockdown was seeing so many people out using our tracks and using the sportsfields for passive recreation. People are getting more conscious of their health and wellbeing and their mental health and so a way to deal with that is through some sort of exercise – it makes the green spaces of Wellington that much more valuable for our communities.

A newspaper clipping with a woman dressed in white kicking a football, with the headline reading 'NZ's soccer captain prunes, practises among the roses'.

How has Wellington changed since you started?

The changes have been big! You can really see that the city has shaped with time while still preserving some of the history within it.


It’s great to have contributed to the changing face of the city. Gradually we’re getting rid of the 100-year-old pines on the skyline and they’re being replaced with native reveg. Artificial turfs have completely changed the landscape of sport in Wellington – it’s been fantastic to get in behind those projects and see the results – far fewer cancellations and way better access to sport for all ages and levels.


What are you most proud of in terms of your work?

Being able to help shape a great operations team to deliver maintenance services and customer service on behalf of the city. Involvement in key events that have helped put Wellington on the map and world stage such as FIFA World Cups, 2011 Rugby World Cup and the Lord of the Rings Premier. Helping set up the home base for the Phoenix was also a highlight.


Then there were the 2004 and 2006 major storm events when trees were rolling down Tinakori Hill and a big tree blocked the Terrace tunnel – our people had to get in and stop the city grinding to a halt. I love the fact that ops staff roll their sleeves up and help out where required in times of need for the city.


What can you tell us about the new role?

I’ve been seconded for 18 months as the Council’s Health, Safety & Security Manager which is a great opportunity and a challenge for me. I’d never say I’m an H&S guru but I’ve always had to operate with a health and safety lens as the Ops Manager. There was always a lot of risk involved in what my teams did out in the field and as a manager you always wanted everyone to come back through the gates safely at the end of each day. PSR have always prioritised H&S and it’s always been part of what we do and how we operate.

A line-up of soccer players sitting in the benches on the field with stadium seats packed with fans behind.

Having the task of building and growing health, safety and security maturity across the organisation is exciting – that’s the kind of stuff I enjoy doing – it’s a good challenge. We have really passionate health, safety and security people within the team and across the organisation so I’m starting at a good point.


We’ve come a long way with H&S in the workplace over the past couple of decades – when I first started in the role there were incidents that were definitely serious. One I recall involved tips of fingers being cut off in a mower and a couple of others that could have resulted in fatalities had the landscape been different, literally.


What’s kept you here for 20+ years?

There’s always something different happening – that’s what helps keep us here. There are also awesome and passionate people that I’ve worked with and alongside for many years – a number of them have become great friends.


A football legend

My first love was always football – I first kicked a ball at the age of four. I’m a long-time Spurs fan – there’s a lot of us about.

I played with the boys until the age of about 13 or 14 when I switched to the women’s game. I’m actually a left-footer so I was always out on the left wing – but from about 16 I really wanted to be a striker so I was usually up front from then on.


I’m definitely retired from football now – the last gig I had was as one of the assistant coaches for the Football Ferns at the 2019 Women’s FIFA World Cup – it was an amazing way to kind of end my involvement in the game at the highest level. 


I was goal-hungry and I absolutely loved my number 9 shirt. We played all the big guns over the years I was involved as a player – Germany, Norway, Denmark, the US, China, Korea, Canada.


Probably my most memorable goal was my first for New Zealand – I scored when we beat Australia 2-0. But I think my most memorable moment was when we also beat Australia, in Sydney, to qualify for the first Women’s World Cup in 1991. To have been involved in that tournament and help create history is something I’ll never forget.

A wide yellow graphic with the words 20 twenty one, celebrating our people, in black.

It’s 2021, so we’re sharing stories about 21 of our people who have worked at Council for 20 years or more. Find out more about the series in this story.