Meet the Match

A Community Leader Shifts the Way Kiwi Women See Themselves

Growing up a five-minute stroll from the Hutt River in New Zealand, Fran McEwen spent many of her childhood days swimming in the river, flying kites, and climbing trees. Born and raised in Upper Hutt, a small, outdoorsy city about 21 miles from Wellington, she lived what she calls “the quintessential 1980s New Zealand childhood.”

Sports seeped into Fran’s life through her father, a sports producer for national television. He would cover the rugby and soccer World Cups, Olympic Games, and other events around the globe, and sometimes he’d take her along with him to soak in the experience.

But, something changed in Fran during her teenage years. She stopped playing sports and moved out of the home. Eventually, she dropped out of school and felt disconnected from society.

“It was like I was walking along the edge of a line,” Fran says. “Some  people think that you have to have experienced a difficult upbringing in order to lose your way, but we all face challenges and I am evidence that it can happen to anyone.”

Eventually, Fran found herself again and, while working full-time, began to study. In 2002, she completed a diploma in information and library sciences from the Open Polytechnic of New Zealand. This academic phase coincided with a decade-long career of working as a library advisor and specialist in the areas of children, youth, women, and communities. The difficult period in Fran’s life when she felt detached from herself served as  a catalyst for her dedication empowering young women. In 2015, she earned a bachelor’s degree in social science from the Open Polytechnic to cement her commitment to making a difference in the lives of others.

“I made so many terrible mistakes as a young woman,” she says, “and I want to support other young women to make better choices.”

While completing her bachelor’s degree, Fran found her way to working in sport. The Upper Hutt City Council needed a manager for its sports and recreation team. Given Fran’s extensive background in community development and human-centered strategies, the council’s leadership identified Fran as a strong fit. Four years later, Fran now works as the health and wellbeing partnership leader at Wellington City Council. Knowing first-hand the important role sport can play in women’s lives, Fran recently founded Shift (“shift your body, shift your mind”), a community outreach program that uses sports to promote mindfulness.

“Sport builds social-connectedness and a sense of community, which is really important for women,” Fran says. “It creates self-esteem and body confidence; leadership skills and good health habits. I believe it is the vehicle to being the best version of yourself.”

Shift, focuses on getting young women—especially those who are inactive or from underserved communities—into sport through holistic activities that target both body and mind. Since March, approximately 500 young women between the ages of 12 to 20 have participated in the program.

The challenges faced by women in New Zealand are the same as in many Western countries: pay gaps, increased rates of diabetes and obesity, and mental health issues. The country has a high youth suicide rate, spurred by issues like cyber bullying and pressures from peers—also  trends that discourage young women from excelling.

Fran wants to increase the reach and impact of Shift, especially with the growing numbers of migrant and refugee women entering New Zealand from the Middle East. In an effort to achieve these goals, Fran hopes to diversify funding streams, engage corporate sponsors, and better market to young women. Laura Dixon, executive director of corporate responsibility for Spurs Sports & Entertainment, will mentor Fran so that she can hone in on her vision. Leading the Spurs organization’s work in the San Antonio-area for the past seven years, Laura shares Fran’s passion for the health and wellbeing of her community and will complement Fran’s drive with successful strategies for engaging public and private entities. With the assistance of Laura and her dynamic team, Fran can grow the reach of Shift, while measuring its ability to empower young women in Wellington and other parts of New Zealand.

Mentor Match