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40 years of Whitianga Social Services

By Pauline Stewart.

Whitianga Social Services 40th Anniversary

A sunny afternoon, 2.00pm Friday, 24 March, 2023. Whitianga Social Services Manager, Sheryl Fitzpatrick and her husband greeted the many guests arriving in the carpark at 2 Cook Street, Whitianga, the current home of Whitianga Social Services . When everyone is seated, Ngati Hei Kaumatua - Joe Davis, followed by National MP - Scott Simpson, greet the assembly and speak of the necessity and strong track record of the Whitianga Social Services. Joe offers a blessing on the occasion and the history of its services. A retelling of those 40 years was summarised and presented by the secretary, Peter van der Putten, with the support of visual memories of past events, activities and people The formal aspects of the afternoon were concluded by the current Manager, Sheryl Fitzpatrick. She thanked everyone, especially her staff and presented two very deserving community recognition gifts to Brenda Duncan and Peter Van der Putten whose leadership and dedication had made a huge contribution to the effectiveness of the work of the centre over the past years and was warmly acclaimed. Peter still continues his work at Social Services.

Telling the story

A seed was sown in 1981 by two women, Audrey and Chris, who owned the Wild Flower Café in Albert Street. They had the original idea to have a social service in town that would assist those who needed some form of support. They invited representatives from the community and a committee was formed and officially incorporated in March 1982.

The main drivers where Rev Stuart McKenzie - Non-denominational church (now known as St Andrews), David Fermo and Brenda Duncan from the Medical Centre as Treasurer. They formed a working committee and occupied a small back office which was then a TV repair shop. There were three coordinators before Brenda Duncan took up the Manager’s role in 1992. By that time, they had moved into Coghill Street, occupying a front reception area and one office. The main services were the budget service with Syd Leaver as advisor and volunteer drivers - a pilot scheme so successful, it is still operating today.

People began to bring in clothing that sat in boxes in the reception area and visitors could come in and help themselves. In time, the service grew taking over the back part of the building ( birth of the op-shop) In addition, after school programmes for children began and John Longden started support work with the youth.

The annex became the Community Op-shop staffed by volunteers. This generated some extra income for the community work and moved to Campbell Street into an old villa located behind Richardson's Real Estate. This building has since been moved and a new building erected.

Frank O’Toole was the Chairman for many years and in 1999 Peter van der Puten took up that role. It was as Chairman that Peter attended a Social Services conference during which he visited the Compass Village in Taupo. Here, he encountered an idea that he was inspired to replicate in Whitianga – the ability to establish a centre for all support agencies and services to be located in one central place. Tauranga District Council had placed a number of historic buildings in one place, called Compass Village. A man called Peter Wyatt had the vision of upgrading those buildings to make them suitable for occupation and then invite the various support services to come and use the premises. The vision had became a reality by the time of Peter van der Puten’s visit. During that time, the Government was advocating that community funding be directed to Charitable Trusts. Peter organised a public meeting in Whitianga to introduce the concept to the Community and in 2001, the inaugural meeting of the Whitianga Community Services Trust (registered name) was held and its living name for the community became Whitianga Social Services.

A community house accessible for all

The Trust set out to find new premises and approached Joan Gaskell, the Community Board Chair, who suggested the old Hospital that was sitting empty. Resulting consultation with Ngati Hei was favourable, but the building was under a treaty settlement claim and the lease had an out clause to vacate if the treaty settlement came through. It was also in poor condition and under a Work and Income scheme, six people were employed for six months in refurbishing.

With the knowledge of having to vacate when a settlement was reached, the Trust started to look seriously for a purpose built building. The former Community Board building came up for tender and was successfully purchased and the Council set out to find a suitable place for the building to be relocated. The corner of Cook Drive became the location. But as good an acquisition as it was, the Community Board building was not large enough to house all the services. Architect drawings and building plans were submitted for funding to Trust Waikato and Lottery Facilities who agreed to fund the project and in 2010 Whitianga Social Services moved into the new premises.

The vision Peter had in 1999 had become a reality in 2010.

This article above is taken from Peter van der Puten’s message at the 40th celebrations.

He concluded with the following words, “We have come together to celebrate; it is a milestone. The Social Services Centre is an asset of the whole community. We only have the stewardship of this asset. If Social Services ever folded, the building would pass to a similar organisation in the community. Thank you for your commitment over the years in supporting the welfare of your community. We now have a community house that is accessible for all.”


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