Since 1998 the St Albans Residents Association (SARA) in Õtautahi Christchurch has had a community centre and employed a community worker to support people build the healthy, vibrant and resilient community that they want.

At that time the community worker focused on the development of the centre, actively engaging volunteers who helped to run centre-based activities.

Then in 2010 the first earthquake hit – disabling the old building. And early in 2011 the second all but demolished it. Staff had to be laid off. So the volunteers stepped up and were active in supporting the community though the tough times ahead and SARA, which is also managed by volunteers (who are elected), started working on a new community strategy, based on suggestions from over 7000 households. The suggestions were whittled down to the top 20 projects.

The strategy, which was published in 2013, focuses on efficient and sustainable community-driven action backed with the idea of using social capital and existing community resources and organisations to strengthen community development, advocacy and resilience.

The approach includes: developing local activities and initiatives for all residents; educating residents about matters potentially affecting them, (their environment, their welfare etc), through the publication and circulation of information; promoting the health and wellbeing of St Albans residents; and providing space and resources to local residents to meet and connect.

Volunteers work on local projects in the community – as well as helping to produce the St Albans News, one of SARA’s important communication tools, along with a very active Facebook page.

For years after the earthquakes the centre operated out of transitional buildings. Then in April this year a brand new and beautiful community centre was opened by the City Council. Ngāi Tahu gifted the name – Kohinga.

Today Kohinga is staffed by a manager and a person doing the finance – supporting the groups using the centre. And there’s a new Community Activator – Emma Twadell, who is rebuilding the community development approach.

The place is open from 6:30 am until 10:00 at night: After only two months it was already at 30 percent capacity – and growing.

There are exercise classes, a games group for people with intellectual disability, yoga, ping pong, martial arts, a crafts and cuppa group, Italian classes, meetings of the Japanese Society, two choirs, Pilates, Taekwondo, two church groups, home-schooler meetings and – overseas scholarship zoom meetings. It has become a place for people to gather, and with the kitchen designed at the centre and used by everyone, it is also a place to connect.

Emma, who thinks she has the best job ever, is currently supporting groups like Sustainable St Albans which meets at the community centre every first Sunday of the month for two hours. Their focus is food sustainability and accessibility around St Albans. They are talking about ideas and design for a new community garden and a pātaka kai. They are starting to collect garden tools.

Recycling is part of the approach. People are able to drop off items not collected by the city recycling – such as the never-able-to-be-broken-down plastic bread tags (also found on some cracker bags and vegetable bags), soft bottle plastic tops, wine tops and aluminium can tabs.

The centre is cleaned with chemical free products and there are chemical free cleaning demonstrations.

A recent post on their Facebook page announced that St Albans NeighbourhoodNet is back – offering support three days a week (until more volunteers sign up) for people needing help with their computer or tablet. People can bring their own device or use Wi-Fi. Internet access and printer/scanners are available.

A new goal, says Emma, is to work harder at addressing the Treaty. The request, as usual, came from residents who, after gratefully receiving the Centre’s name from Ngai Tahu, looked around and asked – so what are we doing here? Emma wants to help make changes, so she is starting with herself – and has enrolled in a 20-week tikanga Māori course.

Requests from the community keep on coming. When we spoke to Emma, she had just been talking with a woman who wanted to connect with neighbours and hold a street event but wasn’t sure how she could get people involved. No problem, Emma told her: “I can help you make that happen! I will arrange the flyer and get it delivered with the St Albans News and on the day I’ll send along our trailer bar-b-que.” So it’s on the calendar.

After many years working in the community, Emma says that there are three basic components of community development: a place to meet, someone to support community action and communication to the wider audience. “Informal education is an intrinsic part of the process: people are talking with each other, sharing ideas, extending ideas, meeting different cultures. The place becomes a melting pot. But some support is essential. I see lots of little groups. They start out with great intentions and then get bogged down in administration. So I help them do whatever they want to do. Our philosophy at the St Albans Community Centre is now 25 years old, but I wouldn’t change it. We are helping the residents to develop their community as they want.”

Maggy Tai Rakena, a past Board chair, who had about 15 years of involvement with the Association, says that what they set out to do was build a community:

“Others said a residents’ association can’t. But we said, we will do this, and we did. At the time we started St Albans had a transient population, with lots of flats. And people were split over issues such as the motorway. But we gave them the opportunity to come together and say what they wanted. And they did. We had 25,000–30,000 people a year coming into all sorts of activities, including classes and courses. Many of the volunteers were learning all the time too. For example, those working on the newspaper, learned how to write articles and produce a publication. And we had a coordinator who helped bring people together.

“Some people need social services to help them. That’s the top end. Others just need somewhere to go – to connect with people and build relationships. It’s a continuum. All the people who participated learned that they belonged to a community – how they could be involved, and what they could contribute.”