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'Leading an icons charity transforming mental health'

Updated: Feb 22

Introducing Sarah Manley, CEO of the Sir John Kirwan Foundation, who joins Purposely to share her organisation's mission. Sarah is a confident and motivated leader who is passionate about the potential of young people.


Born in Chile, Sarah was adopted by her antipodean parents and grew up in the outback of Australia before moving to New Zealand at age 11 where she now resides with her son Lachie and partner Andrew.


Although Sarah is relatively new to her role, having spent months rather than years in the hot seat, she brings a wealth of experience as the former Deputy CEO of Hato Hone St. John. After a decade at the same organisation, she now leads a small but high-profile mental health charity founded by her famous Chairman, Sir John Kirwan (JK).


For Sarah, this is an exciting move and a unique challenge. Previously, she held a key leadership position in one of New Zealand's largest health organisations, where her team focused on motivating and organising a large volunteer army with significant financial and human resources. Today, she leads a small organisation with relatively limited resources, reporting directly to the invested and motivated founder, JK. Their mission is to educate children about mental health.


If you're middle-aged and a rugby enthusiast, you're likely familiar with John Kirwan, an All Black and one of the sport's greatest wingers. He is renowned for scoring one of the best tries in the history of the game, single-handedly defeating the Italian rugby team at the 1987 World Cup. However, if you're from New Zealand, you may know John Kirwan for something entirely different – his advocacy for mental health.


Contrary to many sportsmen of his era, John Kirwan openly discusses his own battles with depression, referring to it as the "black dog." His willingness to share his experiences has not only helped him personally but has also played a significant role in normalising conversations around mental health, particularly for men. Growing up in a culture where men were expected to be strong and silent, John's openness has undoubtedly saved lives and lifted the stigma surrounding mental health issues.


After retiring from international rugby, JK became the spokesperson for the New Zealand government's mental health awareness campaign, bringing mental health into the public arena. His contributions to both rugby and mental health earned him a knighthood. Since then, JK has continued to lead public awareness campaigns and has written books on his experiences with depression.


Sir John Kirwan, or JK as he is affectionately known, is now a globally recognised mental health advocate, author, entrepreneur, and rugby legend. He co-founded Groov, a leading workplace wellbeing platform with a mission to improve the daily wellbeing of 100 million people. In 2012, JK was knighted for his services to mental health, an honour he strives to live up to every day.

Through their school's program called Mitey, the Sir John Kirwan Foundation has developed an evidence-based approach to teaching mental health education to children in New Zealand.


Recognising the alarming number of children experiencing mental health issues, the foundation aims to equip future generations with the skills and knowledge to navigate the pressures of life.

By embedding mental health education in teaching and learning through primary and intermediate schools, the foundation believes it can make a significant impact on New Zealand's mental health statistics. Their goal is to provide schools with the necessary resources and support to nurture the mental wellbeing of both students and teachers.


Sarah, John and the rest of the team recognise the importance of educating children, equipping them with the tools and techniques they need to thrive in an ever-changing world. Together they lead are working towards a future where mental health is prioritized, and children have the support and skills they need to manage their mental health and flourish and thrive.


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