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Kids Need Granddads Too

Ken Limmer does not have a family of his own—but that didn’t stop him from becoming an ‘honorary’ granddad at a Christchurch Playcentre. First published in issue 5 (1998). By Peter Moore

It all began for Ken about eleven years ago when he was filling in as Santa Claus in Hagley Park (Christchurch) Some Playcentre people saw him and were really taken with him.

“In the new year, they rang me up and asked me if I’d be their adoptive grandfather,” Ken explains.

And so began a relationship with Playcentre that lasts to this day.

I met Ken on a recent sunny Wednesday at the South Brighton Playcentre. He was easy to spot. He was the only adult male amongst a throng of children and seven or eight mothers. He was dressed as one might expect of a grandfather, in conservative clothes, browns and tans, a polyester polo shirt and comfortable shoes. He had an unassuming air that seemed to put the children instantly at ease.

We sat down on the steps to talk about his unusual volunteer work. Ken told me about coming out from England with his mother in the early 1960’s after his father died.

He worked as a postie for years before his mother fell ill. He nursed her at home for four years. When she died, “I decided to look at another age group.”

“It gives me a sense of being with family,” he explains of his three mornings a week spent at the South Brighton Playcentre. In the afternoons, he visits a friend in a rest home, so he’s still getting a balance of the generations.

As we talked, a little two-year-old girl climbed up the concrete steps and walked right up to Ken, her arms extended. He gave her a big hug. “This is Caitlin,” Ken said.

“That’s her mother Angela, over there.” I looked over to see a dark haired woman looking over at us, beaming with approval.

Ken isn’t naïve about the risks men face when around small children. He thinks it sad the way “society takes it”. He’s aware of some grandfathers who are “frightened to get involved — even with their own grandchildren”. Still, he is very careful that nonsense allegations are not levelled at him.

“I always keep meself in sight of everybody and I never take anybody to the toilet.” Playcentre supervisor Chris Knowles acknowledges this.”

“Ken is very certain on keeping himself and the children safe. He’s very adamant he doesn’t go anywhere near the toilet. Even though children may be screaming ‘take me to the toilet,’ he’s adamant”.

Chris has been at South Brighton Playcentre for seven years, five of them as supervisor. In all that time, she says, “there’s never been any concern or worry. Only good remarks from families”.  “I honestly believe we’re very, very lucky to have him at our centre,” she says.

In fact, at times Ken’s presence has been essential. Playcentres require a certain level of supervisory expertise to keep their doors open. Ken has done a Playcentre training paper, which has enabled him to be an official supervisor when one was needed.

Without him, the Playcentre would not have been able to run.

Ken’s qualifications are far more than a piece of paper. He often gets the job of being primary caregiver to children whose mothers drop their children off.

The kids strike up a quick affinity with him. “If they haven’t formed a bond with me, they will have with him,” says Chris.

Children aren’t the only ones who feel comfortable with Ken. Rachel Lattimore is the single mother of a toddler named Calib.

She stands out from the other playcentre mums because of her multiple piercings, including a row of earrings down her left ear, a ring in her lower lip, and a nose stud. A large tattoo spills out across her shoulder, imperfectly hidden by her shirt collar. 

Yellow Kurt Cobain glasses round off her alternative look. “When I first came, I thought people might judge me. Ken went out of his way to say hello and show me where everything was… He makes you feel comfortable. He didn’t even look sideways at my piercings or tattoos.

I’ve never seen him judge anyone… And I’ve never heard anyone say a bad word about him.”

After a year at Playcentre, Rachel says, “I’ve never seen a child not like Ken… All the kids take to him straight off — but they’ll back away from some of the mothers. Children are a good judge of character. “If a child does cry, he’s there.

He gets in the sand pit with them and he shows them how to use the digger and how to work the forklift. “Some kids get sick of their mother telling them everything. But then if Ken shows them, they go, ‘that’s cool!'”

Alan Pope, Caitlin’s father, is quick to point out that Ken has more traditional interests as well. “He supports Crystal Palace, my team is Watford,” he explains.

“We always have a good chat about soccer. He rings me up on a Sunday and tells me what the results were. Or I download the match reports from the internet and relay them back to him.” Alan and Ken also enjoy having a laugh.  “He has a wry sense of humour,” he said. “He’s a bit of a wind-up merchant… He likes to goad people.”

Recently Playcentre was doing fundraising at the Riccarton market. Ken was asked to help out. “He wouldn’t do it on religious grounds — it was on a Sunday,” Alan remembers, chuckling.

Ken, it turns out,  is not at all religious.

One year when another Santa was visiting Playcentre, someone teased Ken to ask for a present. He played to the crowd by not just asking for a present, but making a show of sitting on Santa’s knee first. “It’s a very subtle English sense of humour,” Alan explains.

For Ken, like any family man, what’s important is the sense of being a member of a family — the sense of belonging and being at home.

Many of the families whose children Ken ushered through Playcentre still keep in touch with him, even those who have moved away to places as far flung as Switzerland, America and Wales.

They send him photos and updates on their children’s schooling. Those who are still in Christchurch may invite him ’round for Christmas dinner or other family functions.

Since his mother died, Ken has been alone in the world, at least in terms of an immediate family, but he hasn’t felt sorry for himself. Instead, he has created a new, enormous extended family for himself out of thin air. In the process of his giving, he receives back as much again.

“That lot in there,” he says, pointing to the South Brighton primary school, “come and talk to me over the fence. They don’t forget me. How could they? I’m too old and dilapidated.

You couldn’t forget a silly old fool like me,” he said with a mischievous twinkle in his eye.

No, indeed Ken. No, indeed.

Next: Who’s Looking After the Family?

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