'We're seeing more & more families' - The Koha Shed, Whanganui

By Kelvin McDonald
Koha Shed Whanganui manager Sherron Sunnex estimates they are helping 250 people a week in need of warm clothing, heating and food parcels.  

As winter sets in, 250 struggling whānau won't have to worry about warm clothes, blankets, heaters or kai, at least for this week thanks to a small community 'Koha Shed' in Whanganui.

Sherron Sunnex, who set up the country's first Koha Shed in the city seven years ago with her daughter-in-law Meegan Manuka, says a lot of people in their community are struggling.

“It’s growing each week.  We’re seeing more and more new families, very big families too a lot of them." 

Sherron Sunnex (R) co-founded The Koha Shed with daughter-in-law Meegan Manuka in Whanganui in March 2012. Photo/Native Affairs (June 2015).

The Koha Shed

The Koha Shed provides whānau with "anything a family in need requires" from clothing to furnishings, whiteware and kitchenware to toys and books for the tamariki.

"We put out clothing that goes out the door as fast as that.  We’re constantly restocking and our measure of success at the end of the day is a mountain of empty coat hangers.”

Sunnex, who manages the shed with two other full-time volunteers, says they also put together "complete setup packs" for people who, for example, have come out of emergency housing and don’t have many belongings, or for whānau members who have been released from the nearby prison on the outskirts of town. 

"We get a lot of people straight out of jail.  They normally just have the clothes they’re standing up in and they have to start again.”

The setup packs include a complete kitchen pack, bedding, linen, furniture, "whatever we’ve got available really,” says Sunnex.  

In one recent case, this meant "a washing machine, a fridge, a lovely bed and a lounge suite" for an elderly lady, who for health reasons had to move in with her daughter for a while but had now got herself a pensioner’s unit. 

Sunnex says they help big families get on their feet too. 

"You’re looking at six single beds going out in one lot and a double bed for mum and then drawers and everything else.”

Photo/Facebook.

With winter here, the Koha Shed is experiencing a rush of requests for items to keep whānau warm and dry.  This can mean an urgent need for anything from blankets and hot water bottles to heaters and warm clothing, especially for children.

"We seem to be ok at the moment for winter clothing stock [but] blankets are getting really low, heaters, of course, are getting really low," she says.

“We struggle with blankets and at the moment there’s a huge demand for warm curtains.  We’re just about out of curtains, it’s a big struggle.  Those are the things over winter, of course, it changes over summer.”

The Koha Shed has grown a community garden. Sunnex says they are receiving increasingly more requests for food parcels. Photo/Facebook.

The Food Bank

The Koha Shed, which has grown a community garden on the Duncan St premises it leases from the local council, is finding they're getting increasing requests from people who can't afford to feed themselves or their families.  As a result, Sunnex says they have placed a food trolley out front "where people can just help themselves if they need a little bit to get by." 

They have also registered as a foodbank and taken to putting together food parcels for people who need help.

"A lot of families just have a shortfall. It’s a day or two before payday and they’ve run out,” she says.

"I’ve done a food parcel today for one guy who comes in regularly, but he said he’d be alright in two weeks when his fines stop.  He had $5 a week after he’s paid his rent and his power and there’s no way you can live on $5 a week so we have given him food."

The City Mission

The Koha Shed says they have been working alongside the local City Mission, which has the only other food bank in Whanganui. But even they have been finding it difficult to keep up with the demand for kai according to Sunnex.

In return for filling out some of the City Mission's forms when people come for food assistance, The Koha Shed had been receiving kai for their food parcels from the charity. But that hasn't been possible recently.

"The City Mission are advertising that they are struggling," says Sunnex. "We used to get a little bit of help from them, but they’re unable to help us. Last week, we went and bought in food out of fundraising money and we’ll have to do that again next week."

According to Sunnex, The Koha Shed is the only other foodbank in Whanganui that operates outside of the City Mission hours and "the only place available 24/7 really."

"They close their doors at one o’clock weekly, they’re not available weekends and they’re not available public holidays and so we respond to people over those periods of time as well." 

Crisis Support 

Sunnex says she's been called out to the Koha Shed at midnight sometimes to help families in crisis. "It has been a bit difficult, but the need is there and we’re filling that gap."

"We have had calls late at night when someone’s house has burnt down and they’re needing food, they’re needing clothing and whatever else, just to see them through until they can get sorted.”

Sunnex isn't Māori but has Māori children, mokopuna and whāngai.  She says they see a "big mixture of ethnicities" at the Koha Shed, which opens three days a week but sees the volunteers onsite Monday to Friday restocking, cleaning and getting ready for the next open day. On weekends, they are often busy fundraising.  

"We have a lot of Māori families, but we also have a lot of European families.  We have a lot of Asian and Indian families who use us, and a lot of Fijian and Samoan families," she says.

"But we are each week seeing more and more families. I would say this week alone, we’ve probably had maybe 250-odd people, families, through the shed.” 

Filling the gaps

Sunnex says agencies in the Whanganui community are struggling to cope with the demand and the Koha Shed is fielding increasingly more referrals as a result. 

"There are huge, huge cracks. We have Work and Income refer people to us, the Salvation Army send people to us, most of the community health agencies, the mental health agencies bring their clients in or refer people to us. So, we get an awful lot of referrals, but not the funding.”

The Koha Shed relies almost entirely on its own fundraising efforts to keep its head above water and meet the $10k of overheads it needs to budget for each year. It doesn't receive any government funding, but Sunnex says while it would be nice, the strings attached to such funding would likely threaten their effectiveness. 

“It takes its toll and it would be nice that they actually recognise that we’re doing a lot of things that other places are funded for, but then with that may well come a whole lot of checklists that might mean we’re not as effective in what we do," she says.

"People tend to back off if they’ve got a lot of forms to fill out or a lot of questions to answer and people are a lot more honest and can be very, very open here because they know that we don’t have that reporting standard.  We don’t have to relay that information to other places."

Community support

Sunnex says the local community has been incredibly supportive, providing a valued lifeline for the Koha Shed.

"We’re totally dependent on the generosity of the community and they’re very, very generous.  That’s a good thing because it is actually building unity and community and bringing people together.

"Often people will walk in here with something and they see who it’s going to because someone will say 'oh, I’ve been waiting for that' and you know straight from one hand to another- and that’s a real thrill for those that are donating to actually see that it’s going and it’s appreciated. It is a wonderful thing."

The wahine who set out years ago to help those in need says she's still got more time and aroha to give.

"I love it, otherwise, I would have given it up a long time ago because it does take over my life, but I’m not ready to retire yet.  There’s huge joy in actually having very little myself, but being able to help and benefit so many,” says Sunnex.

From humble beginnings, the Koha Shed now has more than 30 other volunteer 'Sheds' throughout Aotearoa and over 20 in Australia

The Koha Shed can be found at 88 Duncan Street, Whanganui and is open from 10am to 3pm Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.  

Anyone wishing to make donations can contact the Koha Shed through their Facebook page.

For more, WATCH Native Affairs story on The Koha Shed.