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Colleen Brown, left, and Liz Kiriona have formed a special bond as they’ve run the Rawiri Community House. (Photo: Justin Latif)
Colleen Brown, left, and Liz Kiriona have formed a special bond as they’ve run the Rawiri Community House. (Photo: Justin Latif)

SocietySeptember 24, 2020

Two mums, one foodbank and the unlikeliest of friendships

Colleen Brown, left, and Liz Kiriona have formed a special bond as they’ve run the Rawiri Community House. (Photo: Justin Latif)
Colleen Brown, left, and Liz Kiriona have formed a special bond as they’ve run the Rawiri Community House. (Photo: Justin Latif)

The Rawiri Community House, nestled between the Auckland suburbs of Manukau and Manurewa, helps hundreds of families with food and other essential services each week. It’s kept going thanks to an unlikely friendship forged in the struggle to help those doing it toughest.

My interview at the Rawiri Community House in Rata Vine, with Liz Kiriona and Colleen Brown is almost over before it’s begun. Just as we’re about to start, Kiriona is called to the reception. After a tense conversation with a gentleman at the front door, she returns and fires a knowing look at Brown. 

“That guy was high as a kite, and that’s why I intervened,” says Kiriona.

“Yeah, I thought he might have been. I’m glad there was a table between you two,” Brown replies.  

The pair continue to debrief and decide that the other volunteers might need some more guidance around dealing with people on methamphetamine. Kiriona goes on to explain that she gave the man some food simply to diffuse the situation, as she could tell he was getting agitated. 

“You’ve got to move pretty fast on this door. Usually, as a rule with ones like that, I’d turn them away with nothing. You know if you can afford to chong [smoke drugs], you can afford to put food in the cupboard, and they can’t tell me differently because I’ve been there with my own.” 

But with the crisis averted, it’s back to normal. The volunteers continue packing food, a Motown classic plays in the background and Kiriona and Brown return to our conversation. 

Rawiri Community House’s volunteers ferverishly packing food boxes. (Photo: Justin Latif)

A friendship forged in battle

You’ve probably never heard of Rata Vine. It’s a community of about 200 state houses dispersed around seven dead-end streets, crammed between Auckland’s southern motorway on its eastern border, a creek and scrub-filled reserves along its western and southern borders, and Manukau’s Rainbow’s End and the Vodafone Events Centre to its north. There’s also a dairy and a couple of dilapidated playgrounds. We’re sitting in the sun-drenched office of this tiny suburb’s community house, surrounded by boxes of food. 

What makes Rawiri Community House special is the breadth and range of support it provides. Along with distributing huge amounts of food, the team also gives out sleeping bags and toothbrushes for the homeless, along with sanitary pads, modems, toys, furniture, tools and home-grown vegetables from its garden beds for anyone who’s in need. When Covid-19 restrictions aren’t in place, it runs cooking classes and driver licensing courses, along with help with CV writing and advocacy services for those with housing, budgeting and relationship issues. While it’s primarily focused on the Manurewa area, which includes visiting isolated elderly folk in council flats every weekend, through Kiriona’s truck-driving husband it’s been able to distribute goods all around the country to those who get in touch via Facebook. Kiriona says it’s sent stuff as far as Blenheim in the south and Whangārei in the north. 

At the centre of this altruistic hustle are two women united by years of fighting for their own families, pooling their unique set of skills to help hundreds every day. 

Kiriona is the community house co-ordinator. She moved her family to Rata Vine from Whanganui in the mid-1990s seeking a better life. She says becoming friends with Brown was the last thing she would’ve expected as a country girl from the small central North Island town of Rangataua. 

“I never trusted whites. I always had my guard up and so when I first met Colleen I had this thing, you know, so I was just sitting back to see what would come of it.”

At the time Brown was a Manukau City councillor and Kiriona had recently started a residents association to try and get some positive events going in the community. 

“I now say never judge a book by its cover. I’ve got Colleen’s back 110% and she’s got mine. But prior to Colleen, we had so many others [politicians] come in and overpromise and underdeliver.”

Brown grew up in Ōtāhuhu at a time when work was plentiful, families were large and David Lange’s father was everyone’s trusted doctor. But unlike today, it was largely a Pakehā community, and Brown only had one Māori girl in her classes at the local college. The former high school teacher is currently a member of the Counties Manukau District Health Board, but also holds a number of regional governance roles, along with chairing the trust that runs the community house. 

Brown says while she and Kiriona might seem an unlikely pair, fighting for her intellectually disabled son Travers to be treated fairly is something many in Rata Vine understand. 

“I’ve had a privileged life, but once Liz [Kiriona] knew about Travers, there was an acceptance – ‘there’s another battler’.”

Brown is the chair of Disability Connect and has spent many years advocating for families with disabled children to be treated better by their schools and to get the social service support they’ve required.  

“I’ve dealt with something like 17 ministers of education and 16 ministers of social welfare. And it’s just like this community here. The parents and families of disabled kids, just like communities like this, really struggle because we’re labelled and we’re despised by those that don’t know or understand them.”

The Rawiri Community House relies on donations from a range of businesses. (Photo: Justin Latif)

For Kiriona, she says moving to Rata Vine was the catalyst for a series of challenges that in some ways makes her regret ever leaving Whanganui. 

“We moved up to make a better life for our kids but oh did we make a mistake. When we first came here, this area was shit, and we came right in amongst it. Drugs, alcohol, gangs – it was really bad, and our two eldest ones got involved in it.”

Kiriona says it was particularly tough during the early 2000s.

“Back in the day we couldn’t get any deliveries coming in. Pizza Hut, taxis, they used to have to wait out there [pointing to Great South Road]. If the police were called they would wait at the entrance until three or four other cop cars arrived and then they’d come in. And when our kids got mixed up with it all, my mate and I decided to take a stand.”

Drug dealing and youth drinking were at the heart of the issues, so one of the first wins for Kiriona was to get the council to institute liquor bans in the park and get the dairy’s liquor licence revoked. She also ran concerts and Christmas events, which was how Brown became involved through her role as a local councillor. 

“All you can do is support the people,” Brown says. “They know what they want. It’s not for me to say what they want. My role here has to be to help with my connections. Liz has got huge networks, I’ve got networks and I think they’re complementary networks. Yeah, it isn’t easy, and we always needed the money yesterday, but we’re always trying to look ahead and think how can we do this, how can we make this work.”

Stop paying us ‘lip service’

The tinnie houses were eventually shut down, and along with Kiriona and Brown’s concerted efforts, the area has become much more settled now. But even as these improvements have been made, residents have faced the ongoing threat of evictions, whether it’s due to the meth testing debacle based on “dud advice”, as former National Party leader Simon Bridges described it, or the arbitrary rules around eligibility for state housing. 

“We know that to build a strong community, you need families to feel stable with a sense of belonging and with kids going to one school,” Brown says. “You get all the academics saying these are the elements you need to make something strong and enduring. And then you have government policies coming in that actually destroy all that.”

The pair believe the key issue is how disconnected policymakers are from the realities experienced by those in Rata Vine. Whether its officials in Wellington or Auckland Council staff just up the road in its Manukau offices, they see them as all the same. 

“These bloody faceless bureaucrats – that’s my major issue,” says Brown. “They have no idea and yet, they’re so powerful as they can make a lot of things happen, but they don’t understand. I’ve lived in this community of Manurewa for 36 years, but I’d never say that I understand this community. I think it’s arrogant to say we understand what South Auckland needs, but that’s what I’ve heard these bureaucrats say.”

For Kiriona, she just wishes community organisations like theirs could be recognised for all the work they do, rather than constantly needing to fill the gaps left by government agencies. 

“If you succeed, then you’re told you no longer need support and so they take the support away, and then you don’t succeed any more and they say, ‘why?’ But the only way through it is to do it. And who else is gonna step up? With the changes we’re seeing take place, we can’t walk away because the job’s not done.”

Keep going!