1 Dec 2022

Te Whāngai Trust nursery's rehab for offenders shows success

From Checkpoint, 5:49 pm on 1 December 2022

The fatal stabbing of a Sandringham dairy worker last week has reignited the debate about punishment versus rehabilitation for offenders.

But a Waikato-based trust claims to provide a solution based on respect rather than retribution.

Te Whāngai Trust is a native plant nursery and training centre that welcomes people from all walks of life to learn new skills and get paid while they do it.

Co-founder Adrienne Dalton began each day with a drive from the trust's main nursery in Miranda -  also her home.

By 7am she was picking up a vanload of people from Pukekohe.

Any stragglers could expect to see Dalton show up at their houses, knocking on their windows to get them out of bed and off to Miranda.

For Dalton, it was more than just part of the job - her employees were like family.

Te Whāngai offers new skills and a welcoming atmosphere to youth. Photo:

"Whāngai is to nurture people and to awhi [embrace] them as your own.

"You never turn away your own family members so once somebody's been in the trust, we never turn them away."

Some people joined Te Whāngai to learn new skills.

Tamati had been in the programme for about two months.

"As I've come here every single day, I just start learning more and more -- about how to pot, different species of plants, what they do when you plant them in the wild, how they help the environment."

Tamati hoped to use the knowledge to help his iwi, Ngāti Te Ata, set up their own nursery.

Te Whāngai's welcoming atmosphere kept him coming back every morning, he said.

"Everyone's really bubbly, they've got good personalities... It's just like another family. We all just come together every day and get the job done."

Others got a sense of achievement from earning an income.

Cassius had been with Te Whāngai for about six years and had been on the benefit for about 25 years prior to that.

"My missus said it was time for me to go to work. She used to work here, so she said it would be a good place for me to socialise and get a bit more education about trees.

"She's passed on now, so I'm carrying it on for her."

Te Whāngai had helped Cassius to get Level 1 and 2 qualifications and foster a passion for the environment.

"The more trees I plant, the more will be here for my great-great-grandchildren, and that's what it's about."

The Trust accepted anyone who walked up the driveway, including referrals from the police.

It currently employed 15 young people who had either committed offences or who the police had identified as being at risk of offending.

Liam returned to Te Whāngai after spending time in prison.

"Being inside, being locked up, I was stressing out because I thought to myself, 'Will I still have my job to come back to when I get out? Will the people who were supporting me still be here for me?'"

But he said Te Whāngai stayed connected and let him know he would still have a place once he got out.

"To come out of prison straight back into mahi has been really healthy for me and my mindset, physically and mentally, because I'm not at home thinking about the crime I did or reoffending, and it gives me a chance to make up for what I did wrong."

Dalton said while National's boot camp proposal might appeal to people in search of quick responses to crime, it was unrealistic to expect 100 percent success from hard-line policies.

According to the Ministry of Justice, about 70 per cent of people were reconvicted within two years of release from prison.

It was for that reason that Te Whāngai's had an open-door policy.

"You leave your past at the gate, and it's about a second chance, or for some people, their first opportunity," Dalton said.

After the trust's pilot programme, 73 percent of its high-risk recidivist youth offenders did not go on to reoffend, whereas a study into 11 Christchurch-based military-style camps found just 14 percent of participants did not reoffend.

"Boot camps are a great option for some youth that haven't experienced discipline or who have a huge need in their lives.

"But you can't just do the boot camp and then let them go back to the environment that they've been in previously."

Over the last 16 years, Te Whāngai had helped more than 800 trainees into work, and currently employed a team of 75.

In the Queen's Birthday and Platinum Jubilee Honours List, Dalton was recognised with the Order of Merit.

And in 2016 Te Whāngai Trust won the Green Ribbon Award for environmental achievements.

But that praise had not translated into a steady stream of funding which Dalton said was necessary to keep the business sustainable and scale it to other communities where there was a need.

"Our people are our profit," Dalton said.

"Every life that we can turn around, every whānau that we can turn around to create a positive future for New Zealand is our profit."

Te Whāngai was waiting to learn the outcome of an application for He Poutama Rangatahi funding under the government's Better Pathways programme.

The fund was established to support organisations that helped young people get into training and work.