Levin’s Kimberley Centre is about to enter a new era. Lisa Knight reflects on the history of the facility that was once a home for the intellectually disabled.
What’s left is bleak and grey.
What was once a thriving community for the intellectually disabled, the Kimberley Centre is now an empty shell tarnished by the troubled tales of its past.
The site fell into disrepair after its closure by the Ministry of Health in 2006, as society began to favour a community-based care solution for the intellectually handicapped.
But for 45-year-old Brent Swain, who was a resident at the centre for 12 years in the 1970s, the desolate site comes to life as he marches around his old home which will soon move into a new era. It’s to be transformed into a lifestyle village for the retired.
Brent’s recollection of the Kimberley site is astonishingly clear. He points out where buildings used as classrooms once stood and where he and his classmates hung their coats on a rainy day.
“This is my old school. A males-only school. You have to do as you’re told because they’re very strict. Very strict. You’re not allowed to talk to females or anything like that.
“If you’re naughty you get the cane.”
Hundreds of students once learned to read and write in the building’s three classrooms. There’s still some writing on the chalkboard, but most likely it’s from vandals who have wreaked havoc on the site since its closure more than eight years ago.
There’s also a school on the female side of the Kimberley site. Brent works for the new site owner, property developer Wayne Bishop, and carries his own set of master keys, but he doesn’t know what’s on the female side. He’s never been there, he was never allowed.
The male hospital is in stark contrast to the school. Spider webs hang across the entrance and the weatherboards are well worn, battered by the elements and reflecting neglect.
Inside, nails and dirt are strewn across wooden floorboards which feel spongy, like they might give way under your next step. The ravaged interior seems as though it’s been left for much longer than just eight years. Entire rooms have missing floors, either fallen through or pulled apart, and a stainless steel trolley sits rusting in what was once an operating room.
But it’s not eerie, there are no ghosts here.
Colourful shapes cut out of Duraseal are stuck to all the windows and James Belushi smiles down from a Curly Sue movie poster pinned with curling edges to the corridor’s wall.
Brent recalls staying in the hospital for a while when he broke his arm in 1983.
“There used to be a doctor sitting right here, where I came to get my arm fixed. The operating room all shiny and clean.”
He also remembers coming to the dentist.
“You get your teeth checked to make sure they’re all healthy and that. If you’d been good they’d polish your teeth for you.”
“It was much nicer than this when it was open.”
A memory not so clear or kind for Brent is Ward 7, the high security unit which is perhaps the source of Kimberley’s grim reputation.
“I can’t remember this building too well, I never came in here. If people got violent they were locked in there. If we’d been playing up and not controlling yourself, this is a warning sign,” he says.
The stench of sheep droppings is overwhelming in the ward’s entranceway. Inside, the walls are covered in paint splashes, no doubt from vandals, and pieces of clothing are crusted onto the floor.
A long corridor leads to more than a dozen small rooms with rusted spring beds still sitting inside, the doors flung open wide. Names are written in marker pen above the doors, which have long, narrow vertical windows and handles only on the outside.
In what appears to be a staff room, a large white board sits on the floor balanced against the wall.
“Has potential for aggression and choking”, “property damage”, “sexual assault”, “must be escorted on all trips in or out of Kimberley”, “history of wandering” are just some of the words nobody has bothered to clean off.
Paint crumbles off the walls as we walk down corridors covered in bird droppings and dust. It’s melancholic rather than sinister.
Brent is curious but he doesn’t seem to want to stay in this building for too long.
It’s clear Brent treasures what was once his home, the Kaniere Villa.
The kitchen and dining area stirs good memories.
“By now, it would have all the decorations up for Christmas. I just think of happy memories. I’d like to see this place getting fixed up . . . we did have a good time here,” he says.
Brent is eager to show off his old bedroom.
It’s a long room with shiny linoleum floors, big windows along both sides of the building and old plastic rails on the ceiling, where curtains were used to separate each resident’s sleeping space.
The walls are painted in a pale pink, which Brent says was supposed to be a calming colour. It wasn’t always calming, though.
He points out a window that he once smashed with his fist.
“I wish I’d never done that.” He drops his head.
Brent recalls the day he was dropped off at the villa at age 2.
“Mum and Dad say goodbye to me and they’ll come back another day. I started to get a bit scared then. I didn’t understand much, I was just a little boy then.
“That’s all I remember. 1972.”
They never came back.
Levin’s Fiona Parrant says in the early 70s it was the norm, and even encouraged, to leave disabled family members in institutions like Kimberley.
Parrant trained and worked at the Kimberley Centre as a registered nurse in the 70s and also had a disabled brother who lived there.
She now works as the service manager for Mash Trust’s service for the intellectually handicapped in Levin.
“We shouldn’t judge that time and the parents leaving these people there, because it’s not their fault. That was the thing you did, you were encouraged to do that.
“There was a philosophy that they’re better off with people like themselves . . . out of society.”
Parrant has two very different memories of Kimberley.
As a child she recalls having tears in her eyes every time they dropped her brother off.
But when she first started working there, in the early 70s, it was a happy place.
“At times there was some really great work done. People took their profession very seriously and there were fun times in the early days. There was some great stuff and also some pretty horrific stuff.”
Anne Hunt, author of The Lost Years: Levin Deficiency Colony to Kimberley Centre , says in its heyday Kimberley was one of the top facilities in the world for the intellectually handicapped.
In the early 70s, the Government at the time placed a moratorium on upgrading or building new buildings as the worldwide shift towards deinstitutionalisation began.
“The poor old staff were having to deal with obsolete buildings. They really had to work hard to make them feel like home,” Hunt says.
“It must’ve been hard for staff who put their heart and soul into the place, to be treated as pariahs as the deinstitutionalisation movement picked up.”
Parrant says the whole culture at Kimberley changed when the day centres closed down.
“When that stopped . . . it started to deteriorate, so by the time they started to close it – well, thank goodness.”
She says while there was a philosophical shift in the way people with disability should be supported, there was also opposition to community-based care.
“A lot of that came down to safety; it came down to what they were told many years ago, that this was the place, nothing is better.”
The change in care means the person being supported is now at the centre of all planning and the power sits with them, not with the staff.
It’s empowering, it’s humanising, Parrant says.
Mash Trust now supports Parrant’s brother in the community, which is a daily reminder of the organisation’s goal for whatever they do to be good enough for a family member.
She doesn’t believe New Zealand will go back to an institution style of care.
Hunt believes it was a big mistake to close the centre and over time the problems that Kimberley helped to avert will begin to emerge again.
Given the opportunity, Kimberley had the potential to be redesigned and turned around into a specialist care facility.
The knowledge of the staff was what mattered most, but with the closure that was gone, she says.
“In getting rid of the bad things they also got rid of the good things, and that’s the tragedy.”
Kimberley was once a happy home for Brent. He’s sad to see what has become of it.
“It’s a pretty sad feeling to see all the buildings falling down, sometimes I wish it’d never happened. Sometimes I wish I could go back. But I don’t think you can ever go back.”
He ambles back past the disintegrating, lifeless buildings and across the surrounding lush grass as birds sing in the trees above.
It’s what he hopes is an indication of the fresh future in sight for Kimberley.
- 1906-1939: Werarora Boys Training Farm, New Zealand’s principal institution for juvenile delinquents.
- 1939-44: The RNZAF Station Levin was operational for pilot training.
- 27 July, 1944: 42 young men and three male escorts arrived from Templeton to Levin Farm and Mental Deficiency Colony
- 1957: Gazetted as a hospital, Levin Hospital and Training School.
- 1961: Psychopaedic Nursing School set up on site.
- 1961: Education Department set up special school on site.
- 1967: National Training School for Training Officers
- 1972: 660 residents, 400 under the age of 18, transferred under control of Palmerston North Hospital Board.
- 1977: Renamed Kimberley Hospital.
- 1988: Renamed Kimberley Centre.
- 1991: Final nursing graduation.
- 2006: Closure.
Source: Anne Hunt
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