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Building Better Futures For Tamariki

In the heart of the Waikato, a small social services team is achieving big outcomes for tamariki and whānau who need additional support.

Central Kids is a non-profit provider of early childhood education, with 52 services in 27 towns across the central North Island. Around 50 per cent of enrolled tamariki are Māori, and many of its services are in small rural towns that face challenges with employment and housing.

Back in 2019 Central Kids noted an increase in the complex behaviours of young tamariki in its services. Following an assessment, it was found that a high number of whānau were living under increased housing strain, resulting in less stable home environments. This has a direct impact on tamariki, reflected in low early childhood education attendance and an increase in complex needs (emotional, behavioural, educational, and mental and physical health).

Recognising that the best way to improve outcomes for tamariki is to support their whānau, Central Kids established a social services division in 2020. Mātauranga Ake provides whānau with wrap around support towards achieving a stable and supportive home life for tamariki.

Mātauranga Ake manager Henrietta Cassidy says, “Our vision is for all tamariki to live in a world where they are safe, loved and nurtured by whānau, and supported by our communities.”

“Housing stress has put people under a lot of pressure. When you don’t have a safe roof over your head, it’s pretty hard to focus on work or meeting the education or health needs of your whānau. If debt spirals out of control too, life becomes very difficult.”

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The team of 13 supports whānau with accessing long-term housing and sustaining their tenancy, debt management, WINZ entitlements, advocacy with other agencies, social or psychological support, and making connections to meet their disability, dental and healthcare needs. It’s a priority to work with whānau to help solve any problems that are keeping tamariki away from early childhood education.

“We start with whakawhanaungatanga, getting to know people, their goals and the challenges they’re facing. We listen with respect and kindness, and if whānau feel that our support could make a difference for them, we start the journey together. We awhi whānau by building respectful relationships and creating a safe environment to help people navigate their circumstances and achieve sustainable, positive outcomes.”

The team has been supporting the Manuel whānau over the past few years. Grandma had taken on care of her four mokopuna aged 3, 4 and 5 (including a set of twins), and they were living in emergency housing. All of the tamariki are on the autism spectrum, but it hadn’t been picked up by anyone. The team has worked closely with Grandma to find the whānau a home in Kainga Ora housing. She is now receiving her correct WINZ entitlements, and all of the tamariki are in school, with the appropriate support for their complex needs.

Members of the Mātauranga Ake team, including whānau and tamariki navigators, social workers and team leaders

“It’s a sad thing that people can fall through the cracks like this,” says Henrietta. “We’ve built great relationships with other agencies and work closely with them to find solutions.”

In February 2024 Mātauranga Ake secured long-term housing for a Pāpā and three tamariki in his care, who had been living in emergency housing for four years. He faced many challenges along the way, after losing his wife and walking away from gang life. Pāpā was determined to turn his life around, but had been in and out of prison in the past, and didn’t have any knowledge of how to find a home. Extra support was needed to find a suitable home, in a safe area where he would not be close to past gang connections. Building a trusting relationship between Pāpā, Mātauranga Ake’s whānau navigators and his Ministry of Social Development case worker has been life changing for this whānau, who have now reduced debt, secured donations from a local church to furnish their new home, and have all the tamariki engaged in education. When the whānau received the keys to their new home they cried grateful tears of relief. They are looking forward to their new life, in a safe and secure home.

“The relationships we build with other agencies really are critical, and working this way achieved awesome results for Pāpā and his whānau,” explains Henrietta. “We’re so happy for them, and can’t wait to see them thrive.”

Initially Mātauranga Ake was focused primarily on supporting whānau in emergency housing. In 2023 its scope was expanded to deliver a wider range of services, and Central Kids has recently committed to extending Mātauranga Ake support into all of its early learning services.

“Our social services background, combined with specialised early childhood knowledge, is what makes our service different. It means we can meet the full needs of a whānau, including for tamariki. Education is so important, and being in early childhood education during the day is much more beneficial than hanging out in an emergency housing motel room.”

Henrietta says often it’s a series of bad luck that has lead people to difficult circumstances. Without the knowledge or confidence to navigate the system, it’s hard to find somewhere willing to give them a chance.

“People want to turn their lives around, and we help them achieve that. Surely that’s what we all want for our community – for everyone to have a fair shot at living a good life and giving our tamariki the best start possible.”

Fortunately there are others who support this kaupapa. Mātauranga Ake works closely with an emergency housing provider that’s focused not only on providing a safe roof to sleep under, but supporting people to find and sustain long-term housing.

The Mātauranga Ake team works with most of the whānau this emergency housing provider supports, and emergency housing manager Amanda Marshall says she has seen significant changes since Mātauranga Ake got involved.

“They provide real, grassroots support that achieves excellent outcomes. We have observed families engaging with Mātauranga Ake and finding the skills and support to lift their whole family up to a better place. I believe their approach of non-judgmental, practical support, and wealth of knowledge, are the reasons for this.”

Together the two organisations have significantly increased the number of people transitioned to long-term housing. Guests supported by the emergency housing provider are expected to treat the units with the care, respect and responsibility they would in a traditional tenancy. After this has been demonstrated for a period of time, the emergency housing provider is able to provide a reference to help them find a private rental. This helps break the cycle when people have no rental history, or a long-term emergency housing stay resulting in no recent references.

Henrietta says there have been too many band aid solutions applied in the past. “It’s a pretty radical move for an early childhood provider to start delivering social services, but we saw the need and we’re getting on and doing it. Our tamariki deserve nothing less.”

Mātauranga Ake encourages property managers to consider working directly with them. “We’re committed to supporting our whānau to be good tenants and live their best lives. A bit of compassion and understanding goes a long way, and together we can help change the lives of tamariki. We’ve got to start with the generation in front of us, to achieve change for the future.”

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