Sydney trip is reward for community work

20 October 2017

Sydney trip is reward for community work

A NorthTec social work student is off to Sydney for a five-night, expenses-paid holiday after winning a radio competition for being a “community legend”.

Michelle Toko, a mother-of-six from Whangarei, will enjoy her first overseas trip next month when she heads to Australia accompanied by her eldest child.

Michelle, who is in her third and final year of a Bachelor of Applied Social Services degree, was nominated for the Flava FM Community Legend initiative for her voluntary work with teenage mothers.

In 2014 she set up a Facebook page dedicated to helping teen mums in Whangarei through donations of goods including baby clothes and equipment. Although the nomination was made anonymously, she knows it is probably a grateful young mum who put her forward for the award, which is also sponsored by G.A.S. petrol stations.

Michelle set up the group because she knows the hardship of being a teenage mother. She was 17 when she had her first child, a daughter who is now about to turn 21. While she had good family support, she became aware of how difficult life could be for those who did not have strong families to  help them.

She said: “I can empathise with them because through  my own experience I know the trials and tribulations they go through. I want to empower and encourage them and show them that their situation is not the end of the world.”

The Helping Teen Mums Whangarei group provided more than 800 banana boxes full of goods in its first year. Michelle has now lost count of the total number of people helped, who are mainly in the Whangarei area but have also lived as far away as Kaitaia and Hamilton.

However she is quick to point out that it has been a community effort, with donations and assistance provided by friends and neighbours as well as her own family. Michelle says she could not have done it without the help of friends Jan Butler and Heather Morrison, and there are five drop-off points in the community where goods are donated. Her five children who are still at home, aged eight to 14, have also been enthusiastic supporters and the banana boxes are provided by her stepfather through his work at a Whangarei supermarket.

Michelle also credits the group with helping her find her vocation in life – she decided to study to become a social worker after realising that for many of the young mums she was helping, financial assistance was only the starting point. She said: “I wanted it to be a support system for teen mums, rather than just giving them items. That is just a temporary band-aid, but many of them need more support.

“It made me want to study social services, and my study journey has been amazing. My life experience and my study experience have complimented my professional practice. It’s all about community too; I have really found my niche, where I would like to be.

“My ketes are now so full of knowledge that I don’t want to keep it to myself. This course is ideal for anyone who wants to help people.”

Michelle has worked part time as a whānau support worker at 155 Community House since completing her second year work placement with the non-profit organisation. After graduation she hopes to continue with this work, and has a long-term wish to expand her work with teen mums into a collaboration with He Mataraiki Teen Parent School.

She is looking forward to a break when she travels to Sydney, and also some bonding time with daughter Sitara, who is studying forensic psychology at Auckland University. They plan to spend their time sightseeing and shopping, and generally “being tourists”.

Michelle was previously nominated for an NZ Pride award in 2015, in the Community Spirit category, also for her work with Helping Teen Mums Whangarei.

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