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The lifeblood of our community

It is often said that volunteers are ‘unsung heroes”. By that we mean that in contrast to the volunteer, many people are celebrated and favoured because their heroism is noticeable and acclaimed and society has sung the tune to them of ‘thank you and we are proud of you”.

The volunteer is not generally in that position. So we call them unsung heroes but actually, these people don’t think about being sung to in that way. Their motivation, their drive and achievements follow a different tune. They intentionally decide they want to make a difference, whether anyone notices or not. Underpinning that, is a conscious or subconscious understanding that believing in, and loving, humanity is the basis of the life they want to lead. It’s a different inner song and it beats a stronger rhythm than the need for public acclaim and recognition. Certainly, they appreciate and deserve thanks but what is thrilling for them is when others volunteer to join them. That is the way goodness and human development are perpetuated in society. Once it was the cornerstone of democracy. Let’s see where this goes in the future.

The people we have written about today are volunteers in a particular area. They are not waiting for a future. They are defining what’s possible. They have different enthusiasms and skills but that conscious decision to use their passion to make a difference in their own time without payment, makes them heroes in the true sense.

Ian MacDonald

Ian literally had no idea why he’d been invited to the Mercury Bay Community Boardroom, where Thames-Coromandel District Council presented the volunteer awards were presented, but perhaps he shouldn’t have been surprised.

In 2006, Bruce Smith was hoping to establish a conservation project around the Rings Beach area. Ian MacDonald thought that sounded like a good idea, and immediately became involved.

Today the Rings Beach Wetland Group boasts a conservation area of around 270 hectares. As many as 30 volunteers are involved in planting native trees, building and maintaining walking tracks and other amenities in the area. The popularity of the tracks is increasing year-on-year, but the last count was 19,000 people are using the walking tracks annually.

The group has now planted more than 5,000 native trees, with mixed results. The most successful species have included Totora, Rimu and Tanekaha trees. The oldest of these trees are now between 3 and 4 metres tall, and tree planting is ongoing.

A key function of the project has been the trapping of predators, but Ian notes that trapped rodents and possums are on the decline, and no doubt that’s the secret to the burgeoning bird population.

Bird life seems to be flourishing alongside the human population in the area. When the group initially looked at introducing Kiwi reared in captivity to the area, they were surprised to find that there were already Kiwi living there, using the same tracks at night that people were walking during the day. Current estimates are that there are 16 Kiwi living in the area, and the Kiwi population is closely monitored by DOC.

Also growing is the population of rare native Fernbirds, or Matata. These strongly territorial birds are flourishing in the wetlands now, with several breeding pairs evident there.

Overwhelmed by the recognition he’s received, Ian is quick to point to the team of volunteers and others that support the project Rings Beach Wetland project.

Megan Hensen

Megan Hensen admits she was initially “blown away” by the recognition she received from the Mercury Bay Community Board in recognition of her services as a volunteer in the community

Megan has been a stalwart of the local SeniorNet group, where she has held treasury and lately chairperson roles. “Once they catch you, you can’t get out,” she jokes, but she is one of a dedicated team of volunteers in SeniorNet. Currently the organisation has about 80 members in the Whitianga area, with five dedicated tutors.

They assist mainly elderly people with digital literacy, which has become more important than ever with the disappearance of banks from the area. Aside from on-line banking, many people now take advantage of on-line shopping, and New World staff were recently on-hand to help members navigate their shopping app and website. Generally SeniorNet courses are run in small groups, but they also offer one-on- one tuition where it’s required.

Increasingly, problematic for seniors is online and telephone fraud, and SeniorNet has taken a leading role in helping people identify and defeat attempts to scam them.

Megan is delighted to have been recognised, but she says that her success and the success of SeniorNet really reflects the involvement of a lot of dedicated people, including the Cook Drive community centre and Mercury Bay Area school.

Megan believes that you need to “be” the community you want to live in. When she moved to Whitianga from Wellington eleven years ago, Megan took her Grandmother’s advice to heart. “Go out and find someone who is more bored, lonely or unhappy than you are. Make two people happy.”

Megan’s community engagement doesn’t end at SeniorNet however. She’s also involved with the Mercury Bay Lions Club, and is a keen participant in the “Knit For A Purpose,” charity based at the Anglican Church in Dundas Street.

Bob Nicholls

The old stone wharf at Whitianga is the oldest civil structure in New Zealand. Dating from 1838, it literally marks the beginning of European settlement in the area. When Bob Nicholls first saw it, the mortar had crumbled, and some of the original stone blocks had tumbled into the tide. And he says of himself, “When I retired, I needed something decent to do.” Fixing that stone wharf became his first mission.

With his background in civil engineering, the support of local iwi, the Historic Places Trust and the council, locals Allison Henry, the late Toby Morcom and Bob Nicholls set about having the wharf restored. Grants from the Lotteries Commission, Historic Places Trust and charity organisations, the group soon had the money to restore this priceless slice of New Zealand history to working order, and today it is still the point of arrival and departure for Whitianga ferries. “It was just a good thing to do,” acknowledges Bob today.

It was the connecting pathway along Purangi Road that is probably Bob’s most significant achievement. A casual cyclist himself, Bob recognised that the speed of cars along that short stretch of straight road was inconsistent with the safety of cyclists and pedestrians. Turning again to his engineering background, Bob set about designing a separate pathway between the road and stream, and utilised Corrections’ Community Service workers to do the bulk of the heavy lifting. There are small bridges that needed to be constructed and natural obstacles to be overcome along the way, but a passerby recently acknowledged to Bob that the pathway was probably the best thing he’s ever done. “It’s probably saved a few lives,” agrees Bob.

Bob Nicholls has already left his mark on the local landscape, and recognition from the Mercury Bay Community Board for his work was just the “cherry on top.” Never one to rest on his laurels, Bob is also working on plans for a walkway from the ferry landing through to Coroglen. That’s an ambitious plan that involves extensive negotiation with landowners and interested parties, but Bob says with characteristic modesty, “it’s just another job.”


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