Pūniu River Care staff at the nursery.Tama* is proud as punch about his new job, he’s five weeks in and absolutely loving it.

The 31-year-old Te Awamutu man was released from prison in October 2021, and with the help of  Employment and Training Consultant Mat Williams, he’s now working full-time as a nursey labourer at Pūniu River Care (PRC).

“It’s a mean as job,” says Tama. “I’m so grateful for the opportunity. I look forward to getting up in the mornings and going to work. I spend my days planting seeds in the nursery and learning about all the different plant varieties, it’s really therapeutic.”

Mat received a referral from Tama’s probation officer in February but was unable to meet him in person because of COVID-19 restrictions.

“I called Tama and was very impressed at his open, friendly manner and quickly assessed him as a suitable candidate for employment,” says Mat.

Mat says Tama had several barriers that made finding the right employer challenging, but because of Tama’s motivation and determination, he wanted to do everything he possibly could to help him.

“Tama had no employment history other than two weeks of picking fruit when he was at high school, and handing out lunches and picking up rubbish in his unit at Spring Hill.

“He was very realistic about the challenges he would face due to his lack of experience, offending history, gang connections and appearance [facial tattoos]. Despite all this, Tama maintained a positive attitude and real desire to make changes in his life.”

After contacting a number of local employers, Mat reached out to one of the kaumatua at Pūniu River Care – he directed Mat to the nursery manager who agreed to meet with Tama.

“Tama was very excited but nervous at the prospect of an interview. He asked me to be there as a support person, which I was happy to do.

“Despite his nervousness, Tama gave a strong interview. He was friendly, spoke clearly, answered every question enthusiastically and made eye contact.”

After passing a pre-employment drug test, Tama was offered a full-time job. However, there was one final hurdle for him to overcome. Just before Tama was due to start work, his aunt, who he lives with, tested positive for COVID-19. Tama tested positive himself shortly afterward.

After 10 days in isolation, Tama could finally start his new job, and on Wednesday 16 March he was welcomed to Pūniu River Care with a pōwhiri.

“I was invited to be a part of the process. Tama asked me to be the kaikōrero and speak on his behalf, a huge honour for me. His aunt was the kaikaranga for us as we entered the grounds of the marae,” says Mat.

“The pōwhiri was followed by whakawhanaungatanga. Tama chose to introduce himself and give a short speech in Māori, he did extremely well.”

Tama was hired as one of 10 kaimahi to partake in Pūniu River Care’s training programme, the Certificate in Introductory River Enhancement (Applied).

“This programme was designed to upskill kaimahi to gain the knowledge of what it takes to be a kaitiaki of the awa through meaningful and sustainable practices,” says Nursery Manager Ngaire Steadman.

“Once Tama gains this qualification this will open many doors to work in the environmental sector throughout the motu.Tama continues to show that he is very enthusiastic and eager to learn as much as possible, he genuinely enjoys taking part in the programme and being a part of the Pūniu River Care whānau.”

Tama says Pūniu River Care is such an awesome place to work. He’s blown away by the openness and kindness of the people he works with.

“Everyone is so helpful and supportive. I come from a pretty ugly world and never knew just how much people can care.”

Tama has spent a large portion of his adult life in prison, but he’s determined not to go back there.

“I’m just sick of jail. I’ve been in and out of prison since I was 18 and now I really want to do something with my life,” says Tama. “Just being able to get up and go to work each day and interact with people has helped me adjust to life on the outside. I haven’t seen my kids in a while, and when I do, I want them to be proud of me. I’m doing this for them.”

Pūniu River Care is an established marae-based river care group and registered charity that aims to increase the health of the Pūniu River catchment. The charity started in 2015 with a handful of friends and family. They now employ over 50 people, providing them with opportunities to gain qualifications in horticulture and learn the tikanga and kawa of the four marae that connect to the Pūniu River: Mangatoatoa, Rāwhitiroa, Aotearoa and Whakamārama.

*not his actual name