Clendon is one of Auckland’s most impoverished suburbs. But instead of turning a blind eye to its issues, one South Auckland woman has made it her mission to restore pride in the community.
Under dark skies, I turn off state highway 20 and down Roscommon Drive towards Clendon. Through heavy rain, enormous trucks loom up beside me as I pass large container and distribution yards. There are two prisons tucked in behind the roadside warehouses, along with the usual array of liquor stores, pokie bars and op shops. Piles of illegally dumped rubbish build up under trees and a McDonald’s and Warehouse flank my entrance into the suburb’s shopping centre carpark.
But for those with a keener eye, there are beautiful native birds depicted across a series of murals, plus a collection of freshly painted hot pink and electric green park benches. And beside a cafe selling a fine selection of deep-fried meals and fizzy drinks is an empty shop where a pair of women are busily fitting out what will become the suburb’s new youth hub.
The murals and park benches, along with recently weeded footpath shrubbery and the impending youth hub, are all the work of Melissa Moore and her growing team at The Pride Project charitable trust. But it’s not just a more attractive town centre that her staff are responsible for. They run a community house a few blocks away that connects hundreds of families to social services, food parcels, parenting courses and even gardening and home DIY services.
The former primary school teacher says it was her own trips into Clendon’s shopping district back in 2017 that provided the first impetus to make a difference in the area.
Because of the graffiti and rubbish, as well as “rats the size of cats running up and down trees, and used nappies” littered about, she says her kids would lock their doors as they drove into Clendon, as they were too scared to get out of the car.
“The physical environment just reinforced how they were feeling and it got to the point where I felt I either had to do something about it or I would leave to raise our kids somewhere else,” she says.
“It was really about doing something that’s not just social but also environmental, because how can you feel loving and loved if you’re living in unloved spaces?”
Four years later she’s about to launch a unique youth programme from the aforementioned empty shop, with over $755,000 in recently announced government funding. The programme, called Mangōpare (hammerhead shark), will target youth in the area who have stopped going to school but have also been unable to connect with any alternative training or employment.
“I believe all children deserve the best shot at life,” she says. “From all the work I’ve been doing with whānau, we just kept coming across youth who are sitting at home doing nothing and are so disengaged. What’s out there for them isn’t necessarily working so we’ll design something ourselves, but it won’t be in a classroom or a traditional programme.”
She says the programme will be focused on helping teenagers reconnect with their cultural identity, supported by a crew of “hope navigators” who have been down similar paths themselves.
“What we really do is catch the people falling through the cracks and take them on a mana-restoration process. It’s our people helping our people.”
The Pride Project’s work was recently chosen for one of the prime minister’s rare community visits, after Auckland left its level three lockdown. Moore says it was very humbling to know their work is being noticed in the upper echelons of government.
“It meant a lot for her to come out to us,” she says. “The prime minister said on that day that they are shifting more funding to grassroots organisations, and to be honest we need a lot more people from Wellington to come out here and see what’s really happening. The lives our people are living are just insane but they are so resilient and they keep going.”
Moore knows something about resilience herself. The single mum of four kids is also deputy chair of the Manurewa Local Board alongside running her busy charity, and with the increased workload Covid has created, she says this year has been particularly challenging.
“The hardest part of lockdown was being isolated [from family],” she says. “We didn’t stop because we were an essential service, and so because I have a teenager, she’s been really supportive and able to help the [eight-year-old] twins with their schoolwork.”
Moore’s trust was delivering up to 100 food parcels a week during level four, meaning every night she would come home “absolutely shattered” before throwing together some tea for her kids.
But with the lockdown over, she’s been able to reconnect with a key member in her support team – her mum Angela Dalton, an Auckland councillor.
Moore says her mother has been vital in providing some sage advice and ideas around how to run an effective charity and social service, but it’s also meant dealing with nasty rumours that she gets extra favours from Auckland Council. In fact, because of the conflict of interest perceptions, Moore says the trust receives no local board funding.
So does she envisage a future following her mum’s footsteps into council-level politics?
No, the 38-year-old says with a laugh. Her main priority in the coming years will be getting her kids ready for adulthood.
“[Unless] I want to end up dead by 40, I’ll need to give some things up. This has got to be one of the most stressful years of my life, so while this organisation needs more of my focus and attention, being a mum is the most important job to me because you don’t get that time back.”
The sun is breaking through the clouds as I leave Clendon, back past the rubbish, warehouses and prisons but also past the murals, park benches and the soon-to-fitted out youth hub. A hopeful sign for Clendon’s future.