celebrating Christiane

May 19, 2018

Christiane Schmidt – a tribute

On Good Friday – 30th of March, 2018 – our small admin team received news that we found hard to compute: Christiane Schmidt, she of all things financial, had passed away suddenly and unexpectedly during treatment for cancer. Here we paint a picture of our friend and colleague Christiane, and we celebrate a life well and WWOOFily lived. Our Co-ordinator Scarlett Penn has compiled this tribute.

In the cold light of day it seems fairly puzzling that we were all so very shocked by Christiane’s passing. She had recently undergone radical chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant to treat non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Initial diagnosis was eight years ago and despite good responses to previous treatments, the condition kept returning. So a fair assessment would have been that Christiane was very ill and this outcome was a real possibility.

But having given this plenty of reflection – because I really was floored by the news – I realise Christiane simply didn’t do cold light of day, especially where the lymphoma was concerned. Christiane did radiant sunshine; beaming smiles; unabashed optimisim; bouncing right back; business as usual. As far as Christiane was concerned, cancer could ‘talk to the hand’.

And in her unshakable belief that all would be well, she was able to take us with her on that glorious chariot ride of invincibility.

Christiane with most of the WWOOF UK team in February 2017

Christiane truly loved WWOOF. As you’ll see from her husband Chris’s letter, so much of her life was shaped by and centred around the organisation, including her own marriage and home life. ‘It’s wonderful to be a host and put all of this finance work into practical context. It fills me with pleasure to see the transformation of the WWOOFers we have at Redfield’ she wrote.

Of course, she was very good at her job. At her beautiful funeral, several (very funny) comments were directed at Christiane’s less-than-perfect timekeeping in relation to family life and Redfield community, but this was not at all our experience in the professional arena.

On the contrary, during a 1:1 review she said, ‘I get lots of confirmation from people that I am fast and efficient, that I spot details that are wrong. I like that feedback. It helps me know I am working well, and I am happy with that’.

She certainly was efficient and thorough; I remember when we were opening a new bank account a lengthy document arrived from Christiane with Post-it notes marking the pages I needed to look at, crosses in pencil where I should sign, a letter of explanation as to what it was and why, a note about which Trustee this needed to go to next, a letter of explanation for him too, and two stamped envelopes complete with correct handwritten address, so the process would be as simple as possible for us. I remember waves of gratitude that WWOOF had someone clever enough to get their head around banking and our super-complicated VAT arrangements, yet human enough to hand-hold lesser finance mortals through impregnable systems.

But as colleague Mike Hammer observes, ‘although she was efficient, when you met her she was always very present and interested in finding out how you were. There was no pretending or half measures with Chrissy. I loved her German accent and her version of English expressions, such as “blah dee blah de blum” [instead of blah blah blah]. She had a great sense of humour and wonderful laugh!’

His team-mates agree:

Amanda Pearson: I first met Christiane in the autumn of 2011 at a members’ gathering. I was new to the team and this was my first face-to-face encounter with everyone. There were scores of hosts and WWOOFers too. I was a little overwhelmed. As I hovered with my dinner plate, wondering where to land on the first night, Christiane made eye contact. Then her brilliant smile guided me, like a beacon, to her side. There I remained for the rest of the evening, as our conversation flowed freely on matters dear to both our hearts. I shall always remember her for her warmth and openness – and the ability to make me feel like I was the most interesting person in the room.

Holly Cross: I first met Christiane properly at the AGM in Old Chapel Farm – we had been working in the same staff team for about six months and had spoken over the phone and on Skype but not met in person as colleagues. She was walking down into the yard with some other folk, and I was walking up towards them. We recognised each other as the unmet – ‘Holly?’ she said, ‘Christiane?’ I said.  Big smiles.  Big hug.  Like old friends meeting again after years apart.

Christiane with her husband Chris and Scarlett Penn at our Old Chapel Farm AGM

Elaine Koster: Christiane was intense, generous, tenacious, clever and completely devoted to WWOOF. We recently spent several afternoons working together and very quickly established a routine of sharing coffee at 4 o’clock to which she added cakes and German biscuits. There were always diversions about friends, family and flowers but we got through the work with laughter. It’s been a privilege to know and work with her. She had a bright, bright spirit that has gone out too soon.

Taryn Field: I have so many beautiful memories of Chrissy, we lived together for 13 years, worked together in two jobs and shared many experiences. What was really special to me was Chrissy’s many cute character traits, one of which was, she would passionately chat away for ages in German without realising it, also she said ‘squizzle’ for ‘squirrel’ which I always affectionately teased her for. She absolutely loved growing, strawberries and flowers in particular and made Redfield come alive every year with all the beautiful colours. I have just finished digging a patch of my garden and have planted lots of flowers in her honour, so I can be reminded of her every time I look at them.

I remember about fifteen years ago, going for my first ever long bike ride with Chrissy; we had the kids on the toddler seats at the back of our bikes and off we went. I was so nervous and unsure, but she was so positively encouraging and supportive, she made me feel I could do anything! I will remember her as a Superwoman, as that’s what she was to me.

Christiane with her daughter Joy, some years ago

As you’re probably gathering by now, Christiane was part of a very close-knit staff team; much closer than your average team because, as Taryn says, she’d lived with three of us for several years. (Christiane, Taryn, Mike and I had been at Redfield together, overlapping by about three years). However she also retained a degree of separation from the core team, partly because the work she did was so detailed and needing of concentration and partly because she was so fully supported by Rob Lea, WWOOF UK accountant, for decades.

Rob Lea: I first met Christiane in 2007, when she joined the WWOOF team as bookkeeper and I was the reporting accountant. We worked closely for eight years up to my retirement and not only was she a (very) ‘safe pair of hands’ but also she was such an incredible pleasure to work with. We had other things in common, including that we both have doctor daughters. I was able to practise my German whenever the opportunity arose. We kept in touch after I finished with WWOOF. Christiane and her husband Chris met on a WWOOF farm in New Zealand. Now how do you beat that? She will be sorely missed by all who knew her. Alles Liebe, Rob.

We also had a Chair of Trustees for some decades – Richard Hazell – now retired. He remembers Christiane as a strong woman whose honesty and directness he treasured. ‘She didn’t suffer fools gladly, but she would always give a really charming laugh or smile after a sharp observation as if to say “But hey, aren’t we all a bit like that?”’ Richard might be interested to learn it wasn’t just fools she had no time for; I received clear notification when certain elements of her job, particularly the annual report, were ‘a pain in the neck’. Occasionally the tables were turned on her too; she mailed me indignantly after a challenging conversation with a host to say ‘She asked me several times to shut up and listen, but I hardly could get a word in anyway!!!’ Now that was unlike Christiane!

Christiane WWOOFing in Australia

Oh yes Christiane did like to chat. Her 1:1 reviews took hours! The trick was to anticipate that, so you could settle in and properly enjoy the rich, meandering conversation rather than fret that you should be doing something else. These personable qualities meant that Christiane was always popping in and out of the office when it was based with lowimpact.org (then LILI) at Redfield. It also meant she lamented that we drifted into home working as the team dispersed over the years, and more recently the whittling down of some meetings to a one-day format rather than weekends. Christiane really believed in the personal touch (literally – she was very tactile) and valued face-to-face gatherings, writing ‘I do look forward to see everyone in June, and it is a shame that it is crammed in a few hours really – where is place for fun???’

Trudi Warner, retired Trustee, reflects, ‘she had exceptional personal qualities. She could make everyone feel special and warmth emanated from her, even on the day of her funeral. Although she was the WWOOF UK finance worker she always had constructive suggestions to make about wider issues in the organisation, and attended the whole of meetings instead of just the bits directly concerning her. Over the years I watched Redfield Centre develop under her careful custodianship and nurturing.’

enjoying a Redfield summer day with husband Chris

Even while she was dealing with the treatment and side effects of lymphoma she was a committed colleague, checking in on emails while she was on holiday, paying wages while seeing family and friends in Germany and even attending the autumn AGM via Skype even though she was washed out by chemo. She wanted everything to be as normal as possible, writing ‘I keep my spirits up and it is great that you trust me in doing my WWOOF work. I feel I only have to call out to ask for help and I know I would get it straight away. One step at a time and thank you all for being so kind, understanding and supportive. Again, your love and support gives me strength.’

Christiane had been working for WWOOF UK for over ten years. ‘Gosh, time goes by’ she wrote to the team at roughly this time last year, ‘I will be with WWOOF ten years on 1st of August this year !!!! Scarlett just beat me by 3 months, ha ha!’

Right up until the end she remained fully engaged, even to the point where she confused everyone by emailing the team from her work address when it had been transferred to her stand-in, Elaine. Eventually, when she finally did relent and hand things over completely, she was supremely happy with Elaine’s abilities, writing ‘From my hospital bed I praise again Elaine for this fabulous work. The stats were spotless and now a perfect snapshot!!! Thank you Elaine, I am reading it with joy and let my head fall even deeper in my pillow.’

Well Christiane, dear friend and colleague that is where we leave you, with your head resting on a deep pillow and – as ever – full of joy. It has been an enormous pleasure to work with you within WWOOF or, as you would say it, VOOF.

With love from us all

Photos from: Chris Schmidt-Reid (pumpkins, strawberries and Australia), Taryn Field (at Old Chapel Farm, with Joy and a Redfield summer day), Elaine Koster

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