WEST – West Auckland Enterprise, Skills and Training – is an independent, not for profit organisation with a long history of providing adult education in the West Auckland community. Although still a WEA, its main focus today is to support economic wellbeing. For a number of years WEST has been doing this through courses that increase income, save money and increase people’s access to employment – such as driver education, a work ready course, a forklift course, and workshops to support small and homebased businesses.

Becoming Financially Fit, workshops on managing money, including making more, saving more and reducing debt, is a relatively new programme that was started in August last year.

WEST also collaborates with other local networks and coordinates the Housing Call to Action – a network of social housing providers, those working in the housing sector and those supporting people with a homelessness or housing need.

The big problem, as is true for many community organisations, is getting the funding so they can run the low cost or free programmes that struggling people in the community need.

Then last year, an opportunity opened up.

Lee Hickey, WEST’s Business Development Manager, explains:

“We were listening to a lot of conversations about how clothing swaps that were being run in the community didn’t cater for larger sizes, so we decided to run a plus-sized clothing swap ourselves. Lots of people turned up with lots of clothes, more than were swapped that day and that’s how we started our plus-sized clothing op shop that we run out of our premises. It’s called WEST Dressed. We’ve had amazing support from the community, loads of donations and lots of people coming shopping. Everything is $4.00 or less – even if they are well-known labels. Most of the clothes are just $2.00.

“Having the income now allows us to pay for the tutors that run the free workshops that are often generated from ideas that come from Becoming Financially Fit. We find that people often want to learn the skills that their mothers and grandmothers had but they missed out on learning.

“So we offer a Sewing for Beginners course, which is about both learning how to sew and how to mend clothes. For some women with larger families being able to mend school uniforms is a huge saving. And as the class is run by a talented Pasifika tutor who is able to make bespoke patterns for people, she can overcome the problem of people not being able to buy commercial patterns in larger sizes.

“Our Slow Cooking programme is a six week class where people borrow a slow cooker from our kitchen appliance library. They keep it for the duration of the course, and on the last day they bring a meal they have cooked – to share.

“Having the income from WEST Dressed also helps us be a bit riskier in what we offer. For example, our receptionist, Gaylene Thompson, has chatted with people highlighting the cost of basic medicines: not proper medicine, but things like ointments to stop itching, or things that will help if you feel that you are going down with a cold. So we ran a rongoa course – Māori herbal remedies using native plants. And it has been a success.

“Our other free courses include Jam and Preserves Making, Beeswax Food Wraps and Cloth Food Bag Making, Cheese Making and Starting a Small Home Based Business. We have people who are unable to work full time but who would like to increase their income and start a business working from home. Many of them have skills in certain areas, like cooking, and they are interested in opening a stall at the market. They can come to our programme and explore ideas and get started on a one-page business plan. If they are ready, we can refer them onto Auckland Council’s two-week intensive Pop-up Business School or the Kitchen Project, which is another Council programme supporting people starting a food related business. So people come to courses here to explore ideas, get the confidence they need and an understanding of what’s involved and then more on to other courses.

“Our budgeting and money management course, which we run in partnership with Westpac, is also for people starting a small home-based business.

“Since we started WEST Dressed and the free skills courses we have opened a door for a completely different group of learners, not people who have traditionally engaged with community education. There is a huge mix of ethnicities, with many Māori, Pasifika and a range of people who have emigrated to New Zealand from other countries. We also have more older women, those aged from 40-65 years. Our overall demographic has changed. We have broken down the old silos and there has been a huge increase in our overall participation.

“The other positive outcome is that some of our learners, probably about seven, have gone on to be tutors and as we can now pay our tutors providing the free courses, that means income for them. We believe in supporting the local economy, which means paying our tutors fairly, and the experience they gain here means they can go on to teach classes at other organisations as well.”