An ambitious project to save a post office in a small Western Bay of Plenty township is about to be realised − and it's largely thanks to a group of women who have fought through personal tragedies to keep the heart of their community beating.
When Te Puke's postal service is handed over to the Te Puke Centre Charitable Trust on October 7, six volunteers who "fell together" at a public meeting and hatched a plan to buy it will quietly celebrate this latest milestone in a venture that has seen them stretched to breaking point, but who still managed to bounce back.
Trust chairperson Karen Summerhays (61) says it has been an unforgettable year and that she hopes they've accomplished something that makes a lasting difference in the small township which sits 28km southeast of Tauranga.
"We're really proud to have achieved this for the community," she tells the Weekly.
After Kiwibank's announcement last year that it would be pulling its banking services out of the nation's kiwifruit capital, plans were set in motion to create a much-needed community service and visitor information hub.
The postal services have been operating from the same site for more than 125 years and Karen says there's a heritage aspect to the purchase.
"We realised it was in the centre of town and a real 'bumping place', especially for the older people.
"The post office was neutral and already used by the whole community with everybody going there at some point. We had been looking at buildings to run an information and visitor centre and a community working space, and it just seemed like a perfect match."
Turning to social media, the trust decided to gauge community backing by asking them to open their wallets and have a financial stake in the postal services. What happened next blew them away.
"When we did our crowd-funding, a third of the donors had no mobile and no email, they only had landlines. That showed the demographic of the people who cared about saving the post office."
Within a month, $65,000 had been pledged from residents and local organisations, turning their blue-sky dream into reality.
"We celebrated with bottles of Champagne. We decided one wasn't enough and we had to get a couple," laughs Karen.
But that was just the start of a journey which has been far from plain sailing.
"We were quite optimistic that this was all going to go quite smoothly," she tells.
"The actual reality of trying to set up a business like this in voluntary hours, with a group of six working people, and making sure to recognise everyone's skills while at the same time taking the community on the journey with us was challenging."
There was also a setback in the form of a major funding application being turned down just weeks before the post office was due to be taken over. And it hasn't been only business hurdles the women have had to deal with.
Just days after the crowd-funding campaign reached its target came the news that a daughter of trust member Dale Snell had been involved in an horrific car crash which left her fighting for life. Then Karen herself had a personal health crisis that required surgery.
"I think supporting each other through our own personal traumas over the last 10 months, whilst it was challenging, has been the thing that's held us all together," she reflects.
"We won't let each other go."
Karen says the trust wants the centre to be a template, and that they are aiming to develop a funding model that will be financially sustainable and not fully reliant on grants.
"We think the model we're developing is a really good one for other towns. Every town has a piece of social infrastructure that is needed that the council hasn't planned for, and every little town in New Zealand has got essential services moving out or coming under threat.
"We think that purchasing those essential services and running them as a social enterprise is a really good model."
They're far from finished though, with a substantial amount of fundraising still needed to get the centre fully refurbished and its shared services up and running.
"I guess we haven't completely celebrated as much as we could because we don't feel as though we've got it across the line until we complete the vision."
But, she adds,"Through buying the postal services, even though it is a sunset business and going to decline over the years, we felt strongly that people weren't finished with it yet. That's why we wanted to save it and build a new community asset around it."
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