The good that people can do

September 6, 2023 David Slack

What gives a life purpose?


Nearly four decades ago, in Lower Moutere, my friend Hazel Nash decided to put the orchard land she was living on to another use. She had an outdoor education centre in mind. There was no elaborate and detailed kind of scheme so much as a general idea that outdoor education is a valuable thing that troubled kids in this world could benefit from. So, you might as well get started and see what you could do!


This is not to say she started pouring concrete without the boxing, but rather she worked it out as she went along, drawing in all kinds of good people with all kinds of skills and experience – all of them excited by the idea of building something marvellous. What it evolved into is Whenua Iti Outdoors, an operation doing great work with thousands of young people.


Now in her seventies, Hazel has had another idea about something she could be doing on her land. Rather than spend money as a golden-years traveller, she wants to put it into a retreat: a place where people can come to stay for free and work on something to do with conservation or sustainability. What in particular? That's only loosely defined so far, but it might be working on one of the many wetland projects in the area; it might be research; it might be finishing work on postgrad studies; it might be meeting like-minded people to come up with new ideas, new projects, or new ways of dealing with climate change.


Once again, she’s not starting with a detailed plan so much as a general idea. Once again, she's inviting people to help and has set up a trust to get things started. That’s where I join the story – one of a trust of six who have begun to colour in the picture. We’re thinking in particular about those words ‘something to do with conservation or sustainability’ and the forms that could take, the kinds of projects and good works which might be especially worth encouraging. It’s just a small thing for now, but it stands to do good.


Hazel’s projects are all about drawing in all kinds of good people with all kinds of skills and experience. In the past few months I have been meeting many of them – people whose days are full, varied and inspiring.


Terry was a chemistry teacher for more than 30 years, he also worked in farming, in conservation and has a long association with Whenua Iti. Not only does he run trap lines but he also constructs the traps, gives care and time and support to his children and grandchildren and was recently meticulously painting the new eco-retreat buildings. He says you can be as busy as you've ever been in retirement and there are plenty of retirees enthusiastic to do conservation work. I asked what kind of work would that be? Trapping? Track maintenance? “Yes, and weeding. But no one wants to do the weeding,” he said.


I joined a group of volunteers who come to the Upper Moutere Community Centre to make meals of mac and cheese, cottage pie, or chicken pie, which get packed into individual boxes and stacked up in the freezer, 80 at a time. The meals are there for anyone who needs them. I've been spending time among people who give their time and their heart to helping in whatever way they can – as mentors, tutors, kitchen helpers, or as members of a trust buying land to be covenanted to the QEII estate, or as conservation volunteers, or perhaps as the person who manages to say the right thing at the right time to let a teenager see new possibilities for their life.


You will find people like this up and down the country. But you need to properly enter their orbit to fully appreciate how worthwhile and purposeful it can all feel. And it won’t be long into the conversation when you find yourself thinking, ‘I could be doing this too.’


David Slack is an Auckland-based author, radio and TV commentator and speechwriter.