Q&A with Jacinta McInerney of Karanga Mai Early Learning Centre

Karanga Mai Early Learning Centre in Kaiapoi, north of Christchurch, is located on the grounds of Kaiapoi High School. A suspected case at the high school meant they had to go into lockdown two days before the rest of the country. Tumuaki of the centre, Jacinta McInerney, talks to Sara Shirazi about how they’re supporting the specific needs of their community.

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Who is in your bubble in your house?

In my bubble is my daughter who’s hapu and due to have a baby. She’s 30 weeks now. And my wife. And we’ve got our other grandchild and my other daughter in another bubble. But our bubble’s pretty lovely to be quite honest.

Can you tell me about the centre you work at?

It’s a community-based early learning centre, licensed for 29 children. We were established initially to provide education and care for the children of teen parents while they attended Karanga Mai Young Parents College.

Last year, we opened up our service to the wider community because we offer transport – so it was for people who may want their child to attend an early learning centre, but not have the ability to get them there or to be able to afford it. We are a free early learning service.

Our kaupapa is about every child having the right to high quality education, and we wanted to remove all barriers to that accessibility. Making it free and providing transport really works.

How did it go for you last week, when you found out you were going into Level 3 and then into Level 4?

We actually had to go into emergency lockdown on Monday [23 March] at 5pm, because we’re based on the grounds of Kaiapoi High and there was a student there being tested.

So we had only three hours’ notice to have our whole community going into emergency self-isolation. There wasn’t a lot of time for talking.

We had only three hours’ notice to have our whole community going into emergency self-isolation.

We organised the transport for people as we always do to get them home. We really needed to make sure that our students – not just our children, but also the teenage mums and whānau – had enough in their cupboards to be able to be in self-isolation. It meant getting emergency food parcels for 15 whānau so they had food to take home. We organised that through our Community Wellbeing foodbank, which is one of things that our employer [Community Wellbeing North Canterbury Trust] manages. We sent everyone home with food, so that helped the teachers feel like people would be okay for a little bit.

To start off with, when our whānau went to buy supplies knowing that [the lockdown] was coming up, the shelves were empty. A lot of people had gone and done a lot of bulk buying. For people who live week to week, that was really difficult – there was no mince left, none of the foods that they would normally buy. And when you’ve only got $50 a week for food…. That was hard. To make sure everyone was fed was a real key priority for us.

It was all really quite sudden for us. There was a lot of messages the next day just to check that people were actually okay. Messenger is quite an accessible and good way to communicate with people, and we’ve just set up a private Facebook group. At first, I spent a lot of time checking in with individual whānau. Since then, I’m considered an essential worker so I can continue to deliver food parcels on Mondays and Fridays for whānau who need it.

Was the food parcel setup happening before Covid-19?

Yes, we have food given to us by a community food pantry every Wednesday and our whānau are able to help themselves to that for what they need. What is left is turned into healthy breakfasts and lunches for the tamariki. People can come to our service and not be worried if they haven’t got food. They know that their child will be fed.

How are the whānau in your community going, one week in? What support are you offering?

They’re doing pretty well, really. It’s lonely and isolating for people, but you know they’re doing what they need to do. Everyone has access to some kind of device. Well, internet’s a bit dodgy, but I’ve been able to phone or get in touch with everyone. We’ve written letters to the children and published them on Storypark.

We’re checking in regularly about people’s wellbeing, how they’re going wellbeing-wise.

A key thing for us is to make sure that we uphold the mana of all our whānau. Acknowledging the amazing job they’re doing at the moment, at home all by themselves, caring for their children. Really taking that [concept of] “parents as first teacher” to a level that upholds that notion.

As kaiako, we want to walk alongside [whānau] and instil in them the confidence that they actually are rockstars with their children …

As kaiako, we want to walk alongside them and instil in them the confidence that they actually are rockstars with their children, and they do know them best. They do have inside themselves what it takes to do it. Building and empowering the parents to feel confident in their role and then walking alongside them to be able to achieve that.

And then we’re also providing lots of practical ideas. And with the food parcels, we’re looking at trying to put in kits of supplies. A middle-class whānau might have spare paper and felt pens and things like that, but not every whānau has those kind of supplies easily accessible for children – so we’re trying to put a bit more of that kind of stuff in, too, when we do our deliveries.

What are you and your colleagues focussing on, outside of whānau support?

As a teaching team, we are really having a deep look at Te Whāriki, looking at the principle of family and community and looking at the learning outcomes. We’re saying, this is like a reset now – so what role can we have in supporting the learning of the children within their whānau? We are looking deeply at that at the moment to see if there’s other stuff we can do.

Do you think things will be different when you’re able to re-open your centre?

We’re a real relationship-based service, so when we get back to work it will be a happy, happy day. I think we’ll just continue to enact our values with each other – our values of being a democratic learning community based on aroha, manaakitanga, ako and kaitiakitanga. I don’t know what will be different really, yet.

We’re a real relationship-based service, so when we get back to work it will be a happy, happy day.

The key things for us is to ensure that the mana of all our whānau is upheld during this time and to be available to help problem-solve, to talk and be there for them, to offer practical ideas, and to love them and support them in that really vital job that they’re doing by themselves at the moment.

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