Transforming lives and community for a better future

9 May 2023

When considering what she wanted to do for work following her school years Helena Coughlan wanted to stay close to her home of Ōpōtiki, but there wasn’t much opportunity for regular work so she considered moving away for a steady job.

When she had her son at 20, that confirmed her decision to stay in her hometown among the support of whanau and friends. Helena worked in fruit packing sheds in tray prep, reliant on seasonal work.

The opening of the Open Ocean Whakatōhea mussel factory provided her an opportunity to join a training programme which would open a door for permanent work. “I saw what was on offer. I wanted to gain more work experience and be part of the history of the new factory.”

Helena, Whakatōhea, who had a forklift operator license, completed the Tuapapa Programme and secured a role as a forklift and logistics operator at the factory. Working with another Tuapapa graduate, her tasks include logistics management, loading, traceability, distribution and the labelling and administration required to ensure mussels are delivered to the correct destinations.

It’s a challenging role and she loves the variety. “We do multiple jobs and we are quite busy and its good because it keeps me going.”

Helena says the opportunity has taken her from relying on seasonal and weather dependent orchard work to a good stable income for raising her son. “He has a brighter future now.”

She says the Tuapapa Programme, developed in a partnership between Te Pou Oranga o Whakatōhea and Primary ITO, is helping to transform lives and creating opportunities for many people.

Helena says she has seen others grow in confidence from joining the programme and getting a job, and that some have been able to enter the workforce after many years of being unemployed.

Open Ocean Whakatōhea operations manager Amelia Austin, Ngāti Tūwharetoa, says young people like Helena are flourishing in the company and agrees that the opportunities are life-changing for many.

“We have had many people move back home here because of the employment opportunities. They end up bringing their cousins and their siblings and they are also working here.” 

Amelia says having a job and earning money has given young people freedom to live in a different way. “For example, they can go out and buy a pair of shoes. One of them has even saved up and bought a car.”

Amelia says she is particularly proud of a current cohort who are studying towards their Level 3 qualification. “They are our little superstars and are now all in leadership roles. They have been given a chance and they have picked it up and taken it.”

Some of the roles are not easy and they have stepped up. “That is really satisfying for me. I am very proud of them and I’m pretty sure the whanau are proud as well.”

For Helena, a Bay of Plenty women’s rugby representative, being able to stay in her home community and thrive means she can also give back to her community. A young leader in the community, Helena coaches children in Rippa rugby and the local under 15 college rugby team.

“I want to get the young ones out there and get them involved and I like helping women’s rugby any way possible that I can.”