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It’s late afternoon and school is well and truly out for the day. But the playground at Hapuku School on the outskirts of Kaikoura is absolutely buzzing.
Several teenagers from the Kaikoura Youth Council are wrangling the primary-aged kids into games of basketball, giant Jenga, and frisbee. The children’s whānau watch on, sipping coffee from the Red Cross coffee cart and waiting for the BBQ to fire up.
This is an end-of-term celebration for the small community and a much-needed break for many of the parents.
Linda Poharama has lived in Mangamaunu, just up the road from the school, since 1984. Her children and grandchildren have all attended Hapuku Primary and she says it’s an important place for them.
“It’s local and just a nice, close-knit, wee school. It’s also important to us because kids get their taha Māori here.”
The school is a hub for people living in this rural area, a fact that really hit home for them following the November 2016 earthquake. Linda was at home, in bed, when it struck.
“It was scary. My daughter was yelling down for me to get outside because she thought she was going to come down on top of me. I just couldn’t move, I was too scared. I could hear stuff smashing and remember thinking that if I ran outside I’d have nothing to stand on.”
The family lives up a hill on an acreage, and shortly after the shaking stopped, community members gathered on the Poharamas’ property until daylight when they could assess the damage. Little did they realise what a long and lasting impact the two-minute event that night would have.
Linda’s daughter, Tania, is also at the Hapuku School event. She’s on the Board of Trustees and all her children completed their primary education there, as did her siblings.
She says the earthquake was unsettling for most in the community, but particularly the children.
“After the earthquake we lost half our school roll because people didn’t have anywhere to live. We dropped from around 20 kids to seven. It was unsettling for the kids, just additional change in an uncertain time.”
Things began to turn around in the community about eight months after the earthquake when new principal Tai Huata started at the school. Tai moved down from the North Island and immediately loved the area. He's seen a huge change in the children since he arrived.
“We now have 22 students at the school and most of our students are here most days. [When I started] we were getting around three or four showing up each day.”
This low attendance was due to anxiety felt by the families affected by the disaster. Tai says that students and their parents were having trouble sleeping and waking up late.
“A lot of people were anxious and parents didn’t want to be separated from their kids. The tamariki were feeling unsafe and unsure about what was happening.”
To turn the attendance around, Tai worked with the families and recognised their needs. Instead of putting the hard word on parents for being late, he encouraged them to bring the kids to school when they woke up, even if it was halfway through the day.
“It just got to the point where parents knew it was alright for the kids to be late, as long as they came to school,” he says.
“We worked on that last year and early this year, now we’re at a point where the kids are arriving in time for school. The main thing I see now in our tamariki is that they’re happy, and when they’re happy their parents are happy.”
The sound of the kids’ laughter fills the air around the school, confirming what Tai says. Despite the challenges the community has faced over the past two years, many believe that it’s made them more resilient and prepared in case of another disaster.
“We’re picking up, you just get on with life,” says Linda. “You wonder if there’s another one going to come. We’re okay though.”
This end-of-term event is a regular occurrence but the first time it’s been extended to include the wider community. New Zealand Red Cross was invited along to cook kai for the attendees and provide advice on preparing for an emergency. The event attracted some new faces around the school, particularly older couples and parents with young children.
Making these connections is key to the ongoing resilience and recovery for the area, Linda says.
“Tonight is awesome, to be able to come at the end of term and Red Cross are here doing this. It’s great, we’re really grateful.”