Rina Capila, driving instructor at a little school with a big heart

By Katie Stone

Reading time: 12 minutes

Most of us do it every day, several times a day, without a second thought. We open a car door, get in, turn the key. We drive. It’s almost second nature.

For the graduates of Puketapapa Community Driving School, however, that simple turn of the key is so much more. It’s a proud reminder of what they’ve achieved: a license to drive.

And driving instructor Rina Capila is just as proud. “For some people, it’s simple - you drive and you pass,” she says. “But for these women, it’s something that will change their life. A driver’s license might be just this plastic thing, but if you have a license to drive you can go anywhere - you can go outside your home, you can be independent. It’s a huge change in their lifestyles, to be free.”

 

By Katie Stone

Reading time: 12 minutes

Most of us do it every day, several times a day, without a second thought. We open a car door, get in, turn the key. We drive. It’s almost second nature.

For the graduates of Puketapapa Community Driving School, however, that simple turn of the key is so much more. It’s a proud reminder of what they’ve achieved: a license to drive.

And driving instructor Rina Capila is just as proud. “For some people, it’s simple – you drive and you pass,” she says. “But for these women, it’s something that will change their life. A driver’s license might be just this plastic thing, but if you have a license to drive you can go anywhere – you can go outside your home, you can be independent. It’s a huge change in their lifestyles, to be free.”

Rina is one of the eight qualified driving instructors for Puketapapa Driving School in Sandringham, Auckland. The community-owned social enterprise helps youth, women, migrants, and former refugees learn to drive and obtain each stage of their practical driver’s license.

Rina explains that many of those who come to Puketapapa are from countries where they haven’t had the opportunity to learn to drive. In many cases – especially with women – they are simply not allowed. Upon migrating to New Zealand, however, they find that life without a car is very difficult. “They see other people driving and they want to drive, too,” says Rina. “Winter comes and they hate seeing their kids walking to school in the cold each morning. And how can they go to the doctors if their kids are sick and their husband is away at work? They can’t get out on their own.”

The Puketapapa Driving School was started in 2017 by the PETER Collective, a group of local organisations working together to improve education, training, and employment outcomes.

Rina was one of the founding members of Puketapapa. While in her previous role at Migrant Action Trust, she and her colleagues were often inundated by migrant members of the community requesting rides. “That’s when we saw the need,” she says. “Migrants faced a huge obstacle in getting a job if they didn’t have the means to get to the employers. They needed to be able to drive there just to have the interview. It’s not a luxury – it’s a need.”

So, with the help of community volunteers, Puketapapa was born. The concept was simple: to provide a supportive environment in driver training with the help of local drivers’ experience, knowledge, and kindness.

The school now provides a range of services to assist students at the learner, restricted, and full license levels. This includes driving lessons, assessments, mock tests, and road code tutorials. First-time drivers can ease into their practical driving lessons by starting with the school’s driving simulator, which is installed in their Sandringham headquarters. After getting used to the wheel, the instructors take them out to the quietest roads for a few careful laps.

For every $60 worth of practical driving sessions, $5-10 of the profits go towards a monthly revolving subsidy. Puketapapa depends on this small fund to teach students and to train mentors. With a wide diversity of migrants to cater for, language assistance is also necessary. They have a small but eager volunteer network to assist drivers with language translation during their practice sessions and on their practical driving test.

A former migrant herself, Rina knows what it’s like to drive in a strange country.

She and her husband arrived in New Zealand in 2014 from the Philippines, where Rina worked as an HR manager. She started out as a student and later became a volunteer employment coordinator for Migrant Action Trust.

It was the social side of the role that appealed: she wanted to spend more time with people. “I wanted to get out and see what New Zealand is like. I wanted to get acquainted with people of different backgrounds,” she says. “I thought it would help me become more flexible to different needs,” and adds that she also hoped to lose her ‘American English’ accent and sound more like a Kiwi.

Rina says she has been driving since she was young and has had extensive driving experience in the Philippines and other countries. So, when her manager at Migrant Action Trust offered her a role as a driving instructor, she didn’t hesitate to accept.

Now a qualified full-time instructor, she takes about six clients a day. She also tutors a group of Farsi-speaking students in the Road Code, most of whom require translation throughout the lesson.

Rina’s driving students are mostly from the Middle Eastern countries, but also as far afield as Somalia, Ethiopia, and Burma. Many are single women with limited English who require translators to join in on the lessons. Her female Muslim students will often only drive with a female instructor.

For those who have never been in a car before – let alone tried to drive – the experience can be terrifying.

“The first day is always the hardest,” Rina says. “It takes a lot of time for them to get used to the idea. They have different concepts about what driving is. Some women think driving is just for men; some are afraid to drive because they think cars kill people.”

The women often need to be gently counselled before they can even get into the driver’s seat. “As an instructor, you have to be very friendly and patient with them. You have to make sure they trust you,” Rina explains. “They are very scared. I have to explain the basics of what a car is and what it does. Then when they calm themselves, we can talk about the purpose of driving and why there is a need for them to drive.”

Despite their initial fears, Rina is often blown away by her students’ determination. She recently tutored a deaf woman from Afghanistan who required a sign language interpreter in the back seat during each lesson. The logistical challenge proved no barrier: the student passed her practical test with flying colours.

Hearing impaired single mum who was able to pass the Restricted Practical Test. With Kevin, sign language interpreter.

Rina recalls another student who struggled more than most, failing the practical driving test eight times. By that stage, she was ready to give up. “I explained to her that she had to keep trying; the test is about being safe. You have to be safe on the road. I told her, you still need more practice – driving comes from experience, you can’t just learn it from the book or on social media.”

With Rina’s encouragement, she persevered – and was overwhelmed with joy when she did finally pass. “She felt very, very good. And she realised the mistakes she’d been making,” Rina says.

The social impact of Puketapapa is no small feat. Now in its third year of operation, it has helped more than 900 students into the driver’s seat. Its instructors have amassed more than 6000 hours of practical driving sessions. Rina explains that even after students have passed, many still need help with other aspects of road safety. The school provides regular Road Code tutorial sessions – free of charge – to those who struggle with the finer aspects of New Zealand road rules.

Community fundraising events have so far helped to keep Puketapapa going. They are determined to keep expanding and currently have plans to buy another driving simulator. If successful, the instructors will visit high schools in the area and provide much-needed driver training to Auckland’s youth. The school hopes to raise the funds by holding a walkathon at Unitec at the end of winter, along with other efforts.

For Rina, working at Puketapapa is about making a difference in the community, and she hopes to see more members of the community come forward as volunteers, especially translators, to help with the increasing diversity of migrants. She says that for every student who passes, another five migrants are waiting to be trained. And to train those five, the school needs two or three more people – mentors, translators, instructors. The school is always in need of helpers: interpreters, support people, data encoders, and flyer distributors. Every little bit helps.

“The best part is hearing back from my students about how they have changed their lives, especially the ones who have work now,” says Rina. “That’s what makes it so worthwhile. Every testimonial from our passers boosts the initiative of every mentor, every volunteer.”

She now knows that a driver’s licence represents much more than the right to be on the road. “When my students pass the practical test, they’re so thankful. The whole day they’re crying and saying to us: ‘You don’t know how much you’ve changed our lives’,” Rina says. “They cry because it’s an achievement. That’s when I think, okay, there’s something beyond the plastic card.”

There are times when she, too, feels a little emotional. “I cry also! I cry because I feel how much they need this,” she says. She is looking forward to a long future with Puketapapa.

“I will be here as long as the school is still here.

“As long as there are migrants, and as long as they want our help. It’s never-ending help for them.”

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