Prominent on the Rongopai House website are some grim statistics for the Far North: 49 percent of their community is living in poverty; 45 percent of their households earn less than $30,000 a year; and 23 percent of their families have just one parent looking after the children.

It’s these statistics, along with Director Dino Houtas’s personal experience, that drives the way the small team at Rongopai House works.

Dino, who is the vicar of the Anglican Church in Kaitaia, has had his own dark times including drugs, alcohol, sexual abuse and homelessness and he knows that there is no quick fix for people for whom life’s circumstances have all too often extinguished hope, allowing drugs and alcohol to easily seep in.

With the support of a passionate and dedicated team Dino established the Rongopai House Community Trust in 2013 and over the last six years it’s mainly the women – so far – who have turned their lives around.

Twice a week, with their children, they come up the hill in Kaitaia to Rongopai House. On a Monday it is for Tamariki Time – a dance and music session for children, and a chance for everyone to get to know each other and for the tamariki to have some really positive experience in their formative years. On a Tuesday they come for a programme called Feed My Lambs.

Both sessions run throughout the school year. Both sessions provide a safe space, away from the environment the women live in, and warm in winter. Of course there is always kai. Those who don’t have transport can be picked up and dropped off after their lunch. Most of the workers and nearly all the women and children who attend are Māori so tikanga and te reo is an integral part of each day.

When Rongopai House first started Feed My Lambs six years ago the aim was to make sure that these families had food, including infant formula if they needed it. Then the sessions developed into finding other ways that these struggling families could be supported.

Lucy Houtas, who facilitates and coordinates the sessions and Rongopai programmes, says that they now cover a wide range of subjects from practical things like cooking and crafts to a lot of discussion around communication, self-image and relationships. Speakers come in and talk about issues or services – whatever the women say they need to learn. Then there are the treats like make-up days with photos to keep.

The organisation also employs two social workers who attend the sessions, so the women get the advocacy they need to address some of their urgent problems such as housing, medical help, or legal services to help prevent them losing their children. If they need it, there is one-to-one mentoring.

“These people are usually programmed out,” says Dino. “They have had to attend so many courses through WINZ or other requirements. With us, the focus is on building a foundation on which people can begin to see a brighter future. We partner with all the relevant organisations in the community because we all need to work together – the problems are too big for one agency to solve. And it is better for our families. When they see us working with other agencies they have greater confidence in us. It is a place without judgement. There are no expectations. We build up a relationship with each one of them and let them know that we will always be there for them. We build trust over the years. We are in it for the long haul.”

Not surprisingly the women and their children rarely miss a session. The programme can take a maximum of 22 women, and there are always more wanting to come. Those few who do stop coming before they are ready to move on with their lives, know that the door is always open and they can come back any time.

In this informal environment a great deal is achieved. They may need to get a driver licence, or prepare a cv. Many need help with literacy and some of this help starts in the safe environment of Rongopai House, before they are referred on to literacy services. The same goes for budget advice.

It is at the point, where the women have taken control over their own lives that some of the men want to change too.

“We’ve seen so much change in so many of the women,” says Dino. “Getting their own houses, being able to manage domestic violence, being able to speak up and defend their children when they are threatened by child abuse, getting involved in the children’s education, or moving on to an education programme or a job.

“And many go on to another of our programmes, Building Awesome Whānau, which is a Parenting Place Programme for both men and women where they can explore how they can change their parenting. At the moment we don’t have many men ready for this programme.

“We can see that with us the women grow in confidence, not only to survive, but to start to flourish. It is at the point, where the women have taken control over their own lives that some of the men want to change too. They see their wives moving ahead and making positive changes and they don’t want to be left behind.”

Rongopai House has always had a programme for men – Men’s Mahi – but Dino says that marginalised men are notoriously difficult to engage. Māori men especially are overrepresented in the Far North’s worst statistics, including imprisonment rates, drugs and alcohol abuse and suicide. Many have suffered sexual abuse in childhood.

So Rongopai House, in collaboration with Kaitaia Salvation Army, is now working with Corrections and Probation to deliver a new programme, Building Awesome Matua, a six week course for fathers with a history of violence. Again, it is a programme developed by Parenting Place, where it is more often called Breakthrough. Both Misikone Vemoa from the Kaitaia Salvation Army and Dino have completed the facilitator training. Before the course began the two facilitators met individually, with a small group of men who said that they were ready to make a commitment to change. The basis of the course is anger management and selfawareness, helping the men become better partners and fathers to their children. It is about helping them work out, say Dino – How can I be the man/father I want to be?

So this small NGO operating on a shoe string budget is successfully working on some of the major social issues in their community – and hoping to make a dent in the grim statistics.

Dino worries that Rongopai House’s fragile funding (just cobbled together from a number of small short term grants) might result in their valued professional social workers looking for more secure jobs. Sustainability is one of his main concerns: “It seems to us that it is easier for the larger organisations to get longer term funding,” he says. “We’ve seen some great outcomes here, so the hope is that we can raise enough money so we can keep on working… “