Aroha Ngā Mokopuna - Kaumātua with love
Each week, a group of schoolchildren in Hamilton look forward to finding out about their connections to family and the land, by working in their garden and using the produce to create healthy foods.
A team of Kaumātua willingly give their time, traditional knowledge, expertise and experience to the tamariki (children).
Pat Heperi, or Nanny Pat as she is known by the students, is a retired teacher and the team leader of the inter-generational Aroha Ngā Mokopuna programme.
“Each week we watch as ‘little light bulbs’ switch on in the heads of the children in response,” she says.
Across the terms, the tamariki are taught about Mauri ora or cultural identity, Waiora, Te Oranga and Toiora for healthy lifestyles, explains project manager Caccia Dennison.
“Firstly it’s Mauri ora because cultural identity is the first thing the kids need to try and grasp – a better understanding of who they are and what their purpose is in life.
“Waiora is about the spiritual and emotional aspects of their being as well as their connection with the land, and that’s where we do their own crops, clean out gardens and start planting.
“Te Oranga is about participating in society and contributing.
“By the time we get to Toiora, they’ve already grown some plants and we’re usually helping them to cook healthier options of certain foods they already eat because kids won’t eat anything they don’t like.”
For the past three years, Pat has shown up once a week to take a class and loves what she does.
“Being of service to the younger generation through sharing life stories and [delivering] hands-on activities with a purpose. We like to watch the students’ responses.”
Her husband Bill Heperi is also involved and likes “Giving something back to the community”.
Contribution from the heart
The Kaumātua involved are not paid but may get volunteer vouchers says Rangimahora Reddy, the CEO of Rauawaawa Kaumatua Charitable Trust which runs the programme.
“These are not like paid positions, this is [their] contribution from the heart to tamariki.
“Elderly people have a wealth of knowledge and experience and there aren’t many opportunities where we get to draw on that or allow them the opportunity to share it.
“We had one kuia who was a beautiful cook and she would get a group of tamariki, and they’d be in the kitchen making, for example, Christmas trees.
"They decorated them, wrapped them up and then that was a gift for Christmas.”
The classes are designed to be hands on and this approach seems to be working, says Ms Reddy.
“[They] make a paper korowai (a cloak made of flax and decorated with feathers).
"There’s an opportunity to learn something from our culture.
"But, at the same time, it’s tactile enough to make sure they stay focused, stay engaged.
“It’s a learning that will stay with them as opposed to being lectured at.
“I think one of the things we didn’t expect was the level of engagement from our tamariki.
The Kaumātua love their work
"When our Kaumātua go to schools, you have tamariki running out to their vans to help them carry in their equipment.”
Another kuia, Gayle Greening, who specialises in korowai weaving and flax weaving, has been involved since the beginning.
“I love working with the kids and my colleagues (the Kaumātua) sharing the talents and life experience we all have.
“Hopefully [the tamariki] enjoy the contact with us Kaumātua, learning and appreciating what we bring to the classroom each week.”
Outside school grounds, the children will say hello if they see the elders at the shops or in the streets.
It’s one of the unexpected rewards, and there are others.
“For the Kaumātua, it’s good they feel they are acknowledged whenever they’re in the community, that the families are acknowledging them,” says Ms Dennison.
“I think Kaumātua were surprised at how much they got from the programme,” she says, “feeling like they’re not redundant anymore, that their skills are still adaptable in society today.
“I think it’s helped them to strengthen their relationships with their own mokopuna because they see some children don’t have as good relationships with their grandparents. They appreciate more their mokopuna and what they have.”
Growing older together
The sharing of cultural identity strengthens both tamariki and Kaumātua, says the project manager.
“We had a kuia [tell us] she just learnt her pepeha (where her family is from in New Zealand and how she connects) and she was able to share with her mokopuna, and she’s quite proud of that because she couldn’t even speak Maori before but now she’s excited about it.”
Some of the students don’t have grandparents so there have been some unexpected benefits.
“For the tamariki, it’s building a positive relationship with older people which is important,” says Ms Dennison.
“I didn’t realise there was a lack of respect for older people these days… that kids didn’t treat older people kindly or let them in line first – those kinds of common courtesies that we used to have.
“But a lot of that is coming back – the kids come and hold nanny’s hand to cross the road even though she doesn’t really need her hand to be held but they feel that that’s their responsibility now – to take care of the elderly.”
There have been real changes in the students’ behaviour, believes Bill Heperi.
“Basic values such as manaakitanga [which is] caring, having respect, being kind, having good manners.”
Ms Reddy says it is teaching tamariki how to engage with the older generation.
“What are the expectations, what are the nice to dos for them.
“Seeing them on a bus and offering up the seat is something you would love an 11-year old to be able to offer a 70-year old.
"I think there’s been some great opportunities for learning so they’re future-proofed in knowing how to deal with older people.”
With New Zealand’s rapidly ageing population, Ms Reddy believes the mokopuna programme is invaluable.
“If we’re looking for a better society in terms to be able to cope and have the capacity and capability to look after our elderly people, because they’ll represent nearly one quarter of our population, then actually we need to have initiatives now to help us prepare for that.
“If you start when they’re young enough, actually engaging with one another, it’s going to be a much better environment for our older people to continue to age in and for our younger people to grow up with.”