Since 2014 the Shed Project has been providing training and employment opportunities for local disabled and disadvantaged people as well as providing services for the wider community.

Each week over 80 differently-abled people take part in Shed activities. No distinctions are made. Everyone is seen to have their own unique abilities.

Denis Wood, who is the Shed’s founder is a 64 year old ex-builder who, with his wife Catherine once fostered Genevieve, a 6-year old girl with a disability. They found that her school education at Kimi Ora was great, but when it came to moving into the workforce the opportunities were poor. So many years later Denis decided to provide a place for marginalised people where they could learn to reach their potential, earn some money, perhaps get a job – and have some fun.

He also decided that if people with a disability are to get a fair deal in the wider community, then the two communities need to come together more.

So with the help of a seeding grant from the MSD’s Think Differently Fund he got started then set up a business model which brings everyone into the same space. It is a model which also has financial advantages: the Shed is 95 percent self-sufficient. This is achieved through social enterprises providing services for the wider community; business contracts, partnerships and a stable number of about 10 volunteers of various abilities.

The income generating social enterprises involve either making a product that other businesses want, or that can be sold on places like Trade Me or their charity shop; or they provide training to young people from local schools or PTEs in construction NCEA Levels 1 and 2.

Denis does the NCEA training and the Trade Me and all the business spreadsheets are managed by volunteer Rob Cruickshank who has been with the Shed since it started. Denis calls him the IT nerd – work away from dealing with people is what Rob enjoys.

The products include boxes, ant traps, wooden shelves, furniture, coffins and pet homes.

Alongside these income generating activities the Shed runs a number of classes which are open to the community.

Patu, an exercise class where people can work out at their own level, is always popular. There’s a computer suite where volunteers help people with basic digital literacy, and those who need to get better with reading and writing are ferried to and from their classes at Literacy Aotearoa. A volunteer takes a cooking class (the products are usually eaten for a shared lunch) and creativity is a big part of the programme. A percussion band regularly pulls in 40 participants and the art classes, run by Jan Thomson (who was one of the founders of Pablos) have brought success and recognition to several artists who have had their paintings exhibited and sold in Wellington.

The Shed also has collaborative arrangements with other organisations providing services for people with mental health issues or disabilities: Emerge Aotearoa offers classes for people with a disability – helping them navigate their way through the system and develop positive networks; and Atareira, a regional organisation promoting mental health recovery, uses the Shed as a place where their people can join in a structured activity, like art, cooking, Zumba, computer classes or the band. Shed users can earn some money bagging firewood for Hohepa.

In this big hive of activity, where it is possible to get stuck into work, dip into activities or just hang out in a positive environment, helping where you can – no one is recording ‘outcomes’. But of course for those who have come to the Shed because they have been struggling with issues like mental health, the pressure-free time does rebuild their confidence and after a few months volunteering a number of people find they are ready to return to the paid workforce.

For those for whom mainstream employment is not a possibility, the Shed gives them meaningful work and a chance to earn a bit of money. At the workshop Friday is a guy’s only day. They work together making stuff to sell and at 3.00pm they down tools and open a beer to mark the end of their working week. It’s a Friday routine that’s happening all over the country.

Not surprisingly the Shed Project has won numerous local awards and it continues to go from strength to strength. But there’s a bit of a hiccup on the horizon: Denis, who works for about 100 hours a week at the Shed, and tries to pay himself $200 for his contribution, would like to slow down. Not retire, he says, just slow down. Big shoes to fill……