Finding your roots as a volunteer

By Hayley White

As soon as I set foot in the Kaipātiki Project’s community garden on the North Shore, I was surrounded by a flurry of activity. Some people were laying down mats underneath big canopies, others were weeding, two people were washing pots and a group of others stood around a table repotting little sproutlings that would be ready to plant next season.

[caption id="attachment_1189" align="alignnone" width="1024"] Repotting sproutlings
Photo: Hayley White[/caption]

For over 22 years, the Kaipātiki Project has been a key environmental and sustainability advocacy group based in Birkdale and Hobsonville Point. Founded in 1998, the project’s key kaupapa, or values, is to inspire local communities to protect native bush and live sustainably. The Kaipātiki local board area is the most forested urban area in Auckland – “the jewel of Auckland,” Derek calls it.

Derek Craig is the restoration nursery manager for the Kaipātiki project. He works with volunteers to do any work that needs to be done around the two community nurseries.

By Hayley White

As soon as I set foot in the Kaipātiki Project’s community garden on the North Shore, I was surrounded by a flurry of activity. Some people were laying down mats underneath big canopies, others were weeding, two people were washing pots and a group of others stood around a table repotting little sproutlings that would be ready to plant next season.

Repotting sproutlings
Photo: Hayley White

For over 22 years, the Kaipātiki Project has been a key environmental and sustainability advocacy group based in Birkdale and Hobsonville Point. Founded in 1998, the project’s key kaupapa, or values, is to inspire local communities to protect native bush and live sustainably. The Kaipātiki local board area is the most forested urban area in Auckland – “the jewel of Auckland,” Derek calls it.

Derek Craig is the restoration nursery manager for the Kaipātiki project. He works with volunteers to do any work that needs to be done around the two community nurseries. He tells me that there have been more and more volunteers show up, more than they have ever had. Especially since lockdown lifted in Auckland.

“After the first lockdown 30 people showed up, and I’m like ‘a possum in headlights’ not being able to handle that many people,” he says. So many people were sick of being cooped up at home that Derek left a bucket of tools in front of the nursery for people to come down and do some socially-distanced gardening.

“My volunteers are a broad church. [There are] a lot of semi-retired people, a lot of people between jobs, a few students, and people who need a safe place to work.”

Regular volunteer Keith Wilson says that he enjoys attending once a week to learn about new trees and seeing them grow. After coming down one day to drop off some grapes for one of the project’s workshops, he took an interest in the greenhouse and hasn’t left since.

“I come down here a couple of days a week. I enjoy learning about the plants and different trees. Come morning tea, Derek has a plant of the week that he ‘does’ with us. He tells us what plant it is and how big it gets,” says Keith, an American who coaches baseball in his own time.

Derek says it’s really important to make sure they look after their community and their volunteers.

“When I worked for Greenpeace, the volunteer coordinator there said, ‘a volunteer isn’t getting paid, so the very least you can offer them is a hot drink and a chocolate biscuit,’” says Derek.

On top of their regular volunteers, he also tells me about an educational programme called ‘Grow Your Own Food’where they have people from ethnic communities come and help out in the garden while they learn about how to grow food in New Zealand.

“We’re doing garden training with a lot of them. We run classes to teach them how to garden and what New Zealand’s like. [If] you come from Eritrea or Afghanistan, this is wet and mucky compared to bone dry and hot, so teaching them what grows here, and telling them that it’s okay, you can come here [is really important],” he tells me.

Blanca Ros, the marketing strategist for Kaipātiki Project, says that they don’t just teach people from these ethnic communities about how to garden and use plants in New Zealand; they themselves learn a lot from these communities too, “because there are different types of food that different cultures would grow. We could even start growing ethnic food here as well, rather than just growing what we know,” she adds. “[It’s] sharing the knowledge and learning that a plant we would commonly think is a weed, or poisonous if consumed, can be used in another way and can have healing properties.”

Some of the most important feedback Blanca says they received was that people enjoyed learning about growing the food, but mostly valued feeling connected to New Zealand, their new home, and the land.

“[The ethnic communities struggled] with language barriers sometimes or not getting to know people. It’s hard sometimes [not knowing] where to turn. They said they feel much more connected to the new land and the new home, having participated. So it was not only about the food, but also bigger scale wellbeing.”

Teaching garden coordinator, Judith Rosamund leads these programs. When I visited the Birkdale garden in April, there was a group of seven Chinese and Koreans. They were taught how to grow their own food, start their composting and generally how to look after the land.

“It’s open to anybody who has come from another culture. It’s about teaching people who have come from a different hemisphere how to grow food here. But also, getting your hands into the soil of your new land helps people ground and be present – I think that’s a really important aspect,” she says.

“I really enjoy working with them because I learn a lot, you know. Often, they say: ‘I know this plant, this is how we use it.’ For example, kumara – all the tops of the kumara – they make a soup out of the leaves and they have a way of peeling the stems and stir frying them – who would have known!”

A lot of the plants are recognized or are called something else – another aspect which is a really nice exchange between different cultures and traditions. It is something that Judith sees they all enjoy. For their final workshops, they do one last harvest and are encouraged to bring foods from their own culture to have a feast with and have a feedback session before the series ends.

Regardless of whether it’s with their ethnic communities or just with people from their own backyard, Judith says that the main thing the Kaipātiki Project aims to achieve is connecting with all communities and teaching them that gardening and looking after the environment is not that hard.

“We’re trying to find ways to reach the community. It is a teaching garden, opposed to a garden just to produce food to take to market. The idea is to get people to come here and learn how to do it and take those skills back into their communities or into their own backyards,” she says.

New Zealand likes to boast a clean green image, so it is important to know how to look after the environment and learn how to care for it while you are here. It’s great to know that the Kaipātiki Project is a safe haven for anybody – both native New Zealanders as well as those a bit newer to the country – to learn how to grow your own food and connect with nature.