For any grandparent, hearing that your grandchild has been admitted to Starship Children’s Hospital is alarming. So, when philanthropist and charity worker Dame Rosie Horton received a call that her granddaughter had accidentally swallowed two batteries, her first response was to head straight to the hospital for which she’s spent the past two decades working tirelessly.
“It’s extraordinary how these things happen. This toddler was fiddling with a tiny travelling clock ever so quietly. All of a sudden, the clock was taken to bits – and I’m not sure whether she pointed to her throat, but the batteries had been swallowed,” Rosie recalls.
“I remember the radiologist coming up to me and saying, ‘You won’t believe it. Remember the money you raised to pay for the X-ray machine? We’ve used it to take this image of the batteries in her stomach.’ It’s this personal experience that’s always been my greatest reward.”
The Starship Foundation, a charity among the many Rosie supports, has always held a special place in her heart. She believes every child should be offered the best healthcare. And, although Rosie is a private person, she feels it is important to speak openly about her decision to make a bequest in her will to the Starship Foundation, and encourage others to do the same.
“To leave money, so that a country has strong, healthy, well-adjusted children, who are reunited with their families as quickly as possible, is so important,” says Rosie, who is patron of the Starship Foundation, and was former vice chairwoman of its board of trustees for 20 years.
“I am uncomfortable with the words ‘giving’ and ‘charity’, but it goes with the nature of the sort of person that I am.
“Some people don’t have family to whom they can leave money, or they just want to give something to Starship once they have looked after their own family members. People who give want the very best for our kids.”
It was a chance encounter with a young mother outside Auckland Hospital, in 1991, that led Rosie to take up the challenge of Starship fundraising.
“I remember she was so upset, as her child was very ill. I asked her how she’d got to Auckland, and she said she had to catch a bus from Bluff that took her four days. It was absolutely shocking, and nearly made me cry,” she recalls.
One of Rosie’s first projects was to help raise funds towards building the hospital helipad.Buying the basics came next.
“The standard of care was fantastic, but much of the equipment was old,” says Rosie, who has visited international children’s hospitals in a bid to understand more about how Starship compared.
“They didn’t have things like pushchairs, beds and plaster cutters. Doctors had to borrow small ones from Auckland Hospital, so we provided operating equipment.
“Also, doctors would get a child anaesthetised for surgery, only to open a sterile pack and discover it was adult equipment. The child would then go back to the wards and have the operation rescheduled.”
And Rosie’s charity work isn’t about gathering her pals to run cake stalls. The projects she undertakes are immense.
“Well, I can’t sew and I’m hopeless at cooking,” laughs the born and bred Cantabrian.
Rosie prefers not to discuss numbers, but she’s undoubtedly raised millions of dollars through the 10-plus hours a day she works, using the business skills honed during her 14-year corporate career.
“We don’t sit around the table and say, ‘I think we might commission another operating theatre, or why don’t we build a bone marrow unit?’ We are directed by the hospital as to what we are allowed to do and what they approve,” she says.
“At a talk I gave recently, someone came up to me and said, ‘Oh my, I always thought you were a Remuera Princess.’ I was absolutely horrified at this label, but it’s very easy to categorise people,” Rosie continues. “I’m a worker. My whole philosophy is family, work and friends. I appreciate it’s easier for me, because Michael indulges me, but I work from nine to five every day, then I’m on email at night. I don’t think people have any idea how hard charity fundraising is.”
Michael is Michael Horton – the former managing director of Wilson & Horton Ltd, publisher of The New Zealand Herald and many other titles – and Rosie’s second husband, of more than 30 years.
They have a daughter, two stepsons and five grandchildren, whose pictures adorn almost every surface throughout Rosie’s beautiful Auckland home. And she says balancing business and family life was hard when she took on work for Starship.
“At the beginning, my charity efforts were a bit of a marathon. It was often a nightmare juggling family and work, and the new responsibilities. Once you take on something of any magnitude, it is so enormous, you can’t back out. I had a lot of help around the house and a supportive husband – otherwise, I couldn’t have done it.”
Two years ago, Rosie was made a Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit, in recognition of her 40-plus years of charity work, but it’s her parents she wants to acknowledge for her philanthropic nature.
“As we grew up, we realised part of living was giving,” she says. “I remember my mother saying, ‘You have to give back.’ That philosophy goes right through you – and it’s never left me.”
Caroline Botting Photos: Todd Eyre