Yvonne Thomas or ‘Aunty Yvonne’, has been helping people and plants in Mangere grow – all it takes is a bit of time.
“Dad was in the Order of St John, so everything he did was about helping others. He was also a keen gardener who always gave any excess produce we had to anyone and everyone,” says Yvonne. “I grew up on a farm in Okaihau but I’ve lived here in Mangere since 1973.”
When Yvonne retired in 2011, there was no chance she was just going to sit at home. She got involved in the Auckland Teaching Gardens Trust after a perfectly timed phone call from a friend who had seen the job advertised. As someone who has spent her whole life growing vegetables in her garden at home, helping establish teaching gardens in South Auckland was the right job for Yvonne.
“It’s been over 10 years now and while we had a rocky start, it’s turned into something really amazing, mainly thanks to the support of the amazing Graeme Hansen. “There are seven gardens all over South Auckland, but I spent most of my time here,” she says of the sprawling three-acre Mangere plot, bursting with lush vegetables, fruit trees and chickens strutting around like they own the show.
The impact of the project has been obvious over the years. Individuals or families have a plot for six months and Yvonne, and other mentors, helped them to learn to grow what they want. Then they can take that knowledge home to start their own garden, if space permits.
Give it time
Yvonne has worked with groups from the Department of Corrections. She knows that many of the people have made some questionable life choices, but she worked with them like anyone else. “If we give them the time, we can give them some pride and mana back. We saw huge changes in their confidence. There’s nothing better than having a huge guy with tats turn around and say ‘man, I love you.’” Plus, now she’s in her seventies, it’s great to have some strong arms to help with the heavy work in the garden.
Over the years Yvonne has participated in the Kids at Risk ‘take a kid fishing’ scheme at Mangere Bridge Boating Club. “They had so much fun when we used to take them out and teach them a new skill, away from the drama at home.” She also provided respite care for the past decade, helping a local lady in her late seventies who has a 54-year-old Down syndrome daughter. “It’s nice to give parents a break. Poor Suzie has many medical problems and this has taught me how lucky I am to be as well as I am. Sometimes time given is more precious than gold.”
Aunty Yvonne is a true Mangere treasure and her contribution to the community will grow, blossom, and fruit in backyards all over the suburb for years to come.
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