Bella

Why I had to sack myself

By Ivy Jensen

Call her what you will — human dynamo, workaholic, business success, lifesaver, coach, parent, cyberspace pioneer and ideas machine — and they are all very apt when it comes to April Whiston. 
IVY JENSEN tries to keep up with this woman on the go to discover what she offers the rest of us

APRIL Whiston has crammed more into the past decade than many people would in a lifetime.

As a holiday park owner, nurse, professional coach, mother and wife, she spends her days working to balance a multi-million dollar business, patients, staff, children and life in general.

“I have often referred to myself as a juggler, all I am simply trying to do is keep all the balls in the air at the one time,” she said.

It can be overwhelming, isolating and confronting, but the 33-year-old wouldn’t have it any other way.

Because April is a go-getter and throws herself into everything she does.

From nursing burns victims who have suffered horrific injuries in bushfires, accidents and suicide attempts to empowering staff to upskill themselves.

She also mentors women in business.

And when she has some ‘me’ time most of its goes to raising a family of three.

In a way, she has spent those past 10 years of her life coaching people to get the best out of their lives.

Her passion for helping others started when April worked as a nurse in the burns unit at The Alfred hospital.

“We used to look after patients who had self-ignited, patients who had been in boat explosions — I looked after a schizophrenic patient who had a seizure in the shower and hit the hot tap on the way down,” she said.

“And we looked after patients who tried to take their own lives.

“It was an incredibly busy ward, incredibly dynamic, high stress, very acute patients so we worked one-on-one a lot.”

April was confronted with the horrific physical and emotional effects of bushfire, nursing through Black Saturday in 2009.

One patient from that disaster will remain part of April forever.

The 35-year-old woman was caught in the Kinglake fire.

The woman had never been to the town before; was only there that day because she was on a day trip with her first boyfriend to visit a group of friends.

By the time emergency services were able to access the devastated house everyone except the woman and a five-year-old boy were dead.

“She was left in the dam on the property, with this little kid she had only known for five hours, and they had to wait there until they were found,” April said.

The only way April was able to cope dealing with daily trauma was thanks to the “fantastic” team with which she worked.

“That was incredibly grounding and I loved it because it served my need for mental health nursing, as well as surgical and medical nursing,” she said.

“Many patients either come in with a mental illness or they leave with a mental illness.”

That was when she learned how crucial positivity and identity were when it came to improving mental health.

“Having a strong identity of self is more important than the medication you’re on,” she said.

“We found the patients loved being on the ward. Some of them were there for six to eight months.

“We would tell them how fabulous they looked because, compared to what they looked like when they came in, they looked amazing. But to the outside world, they looked very different.

“So their identity when they were on the ward was a lot more positive and upbeat and very embraced because we were telling them ‘you’ve done so well and you’re amazing’.

“You’re coaching these people over a long time. But when they go out into the big world, they don’t have that and there’s no-one like them. On the ward, there’s another 20 patients like them.

“So a lot of them came back because they wanted to see us and feel normal. A lot of them came with mental health issues.

“The patients who had self-ignited had been going through major struggles before they did that, so you’ve effectively got to nurse and coach them through the fact that they tried to take their own life and failed.”

April said that was when their recovery journey started.

“Once patients reach the ward, the coaching starts,” April said.

“I’ve been coaching for a really long time. Because it’s about ‘You’re doing great, come on get out of bed, you can do this, brush your teeth yourself, get dressed yourself, put your clothes on, this is how you do your wound dressing.”

During that time, April was commuting to Melbourne from Moama after meeting husband Trent the year before.

After marrying nine months later, the couple moved to Moama so Trent could run his family’s holiday park — Merool.

She worked at The Alfred eight days on and six days off for about 18 months, until she was 31 weeks’ pregnant with their first child, daughter Ziva, 7.

“I loved it because I was really passionate about what I did,” she said.

April was also commuting to Shepparton as a wound care nurse for a few months, and she continues to do this in Echuca once a fortnight for her brother in-law surgeon Manny Cao.

“When you work as a wound care nurse, you work as a coach,” she said.

“You coach them along the journey and they get better.”

But while her work as a nurse was thriving, things at Merool were going downhill.

By 2012, the park was struggling and a staff member had stolen a large amount of money from the business.

“The culture within the business in terms of the staff and customers was really toxic,” she said.

“We made some huge changes and, as normal, we got a lot of knives in the back and we were the worst people in the world, but it was either make changes or the business suffered.”

April resigned as a wound care nurse and, despite never having worked in the hospitality industry before, stepped into the role of general manager at Merool.

“I changed the culture within the business majorly just by empowering staff, upskilling my team, giving clear job descriptions, clear KPIs, setting key standards of how people are to communicate with each other within the team and also with the customers,” she said.

Not surprisingly, the business started improving.

“We managed to get through the GFC with an increase in profits which was fantastic and then continued on that journey,” she said.

By the end of 2016, April determined to make herself redundant — and by 2017 had put herself on the employment scrapheap.

“I love helping people. And as much as you are helping people in so much as you’re providing holidays for people, it’s not the same as helping somebody from the soul,” she said.

Her achievements in the business, as well as founding web-based real estate platform Cabin Connect in 2015 and her contribution to the tourism industry, saw April win the prestigious Future Leaders Award for the Australian Caravan Industry in 2017.

That year was the best year of business in her life. But it was also the most lonely and isolating, which, according to April, were the biggest challenges facing women in business today.

“It’s the whole people in glasshouses and tall poppy syndrome and people think you are different. But everyone has the same feelings and emotions and experiences the same things,” she said.

“A lot of people look at business owners like they’re up on a pedestal and they have broad shoulders and can laugh it off and move on, but a lot of business owners are carrying a huge amount of stress.”

Which she was at the time — April and her family had just spent 18 months nursing her uncle until his death from brain cancer.

“We were very close. When I went through that I went through the realisation of do what you love because you don’t know how much time you’ve got left,” she said.

That was enough for her to complete a leadership course and just months into a three-year professional coaching course, Boss Lady Brain was born.

“It is empowerment coaching for women and mentoring for women in business,” she said.

Launched on April 2, Boss Lady Brain is not only a business but a mindset April lives by.

“It is the notion of a positive mind, self-belief and knowing that hard work will eventually pay off,” she said.

“It is not being scared to rumble with the big guys, to have confidence in your knowledge and to believe that women are equal to men.”

And her best piece of advice for women, whether it be those in business or who want some guidance in their life, is to do what she did — follow your heart.

“Don’t let others sway you from what you’re really passionate about. A lot of times I’ve talked to women and they say ‘I’m going to be a hairdresser and when I have kids I’m going to work from home’ and I’ll say do you really want that? And they say ‘no, but that’s what’s expected of me’,” she said.

“So don’t do just what’s expected of you. Do what you really want to do.” 