Welcome to Welcome Bay

Volunteer Lauri Gardiner, manager Anna Larsen and Sally Blackler from Employ NZ are some of the friendly faces you’ll find at the Welcome Bay Community Centre.

In Welcome Bay, the local community centre is very much at the centre of its community, located between the shopping centre and the children’s playground.

On Wednesday mornings it’s the place to be in Welcome Bay.

There’s a cuppa and a chat on offer, a donations table offering free food and clothing, budgeting advice and assistance from local social services such as Employ NZ and the Whaioranga Trust.

There are also JP services, social table tennis, and Bay of Plenty MP Todd Muller holds a drop-in clinic there once a month if you want a word in his ear.

It is also increasingly hosting events, such as today’s Women’s Luncheon, and its second Community Expo on October 3.

A community centre in Welcome Bay was first mooted about 12 years ago following concerns about youth crime, vandalism and graffiti. An office was set up in the local shopping centre before the Tauranga City Council purchased a nearby building and opened the community centre in February 2013.

Along with a team of dedicated volunteers, centre manager Anna Larsen has been at the helm since May 2013 and has seen the community grow substantially in that time.

She won’t go as far as to call it tightknit, but says it is “a significant suburb”.

“It’s quite diverse and what I’ve found about it is the people in this community tend to go away and come back.

“It’s a nice place to live. I think we feel a little bit special because we’re on our own out here. The ‘Welcome to Welcome Bay’ sign at either end makes you feel like you’re in your own discreet community.”

The community centre is predominantly focussed on referring people to social services, but is also a champion of community-led development.

“Primarily we pick up on other people’s initiatives and facilitate that process,” says Anna. “For instance, when people came to us and said they wanted a yoga class we tracked down a yoga teacher and she was able to do a very inexpensive class in exchange for us providing the facility for nothing.”

Bringing people together is also the aim of the community centre – hence the upcoming Community Expo in association with Plunket and Employ NZ, and the Fireworks Fiesta in December.

The inaugural community fireworks display in November was rained out last year, forcing a postponement to coincide with the annual family fun day in December. It turned out to be a blessing.

“Postponing it from November turned it into a really special event in December. We’re anticipating a crowd of around 5000 again this year,” says Anna.

The first Community Expo was held in April this year, attracting a crowd of around 300 people. It was a chance for people to engage with local support services, but with plenty of events for the kids, it also turned into a family fun day, with a skate competition and scootering for the little ones, basketball, free sausage sizzle, live entertainment, and prize draws.

“The feedback we had that day was extraordinary,” says Anna. “One woman told me she couldn’t believe the generosity and kindness of the people who were here. Many people had no idea they could get this support in their own community and that the services were far more accessible than they imagined.”

Anna is also a Welcome Bay resident and often advocates for the community when it comes to the issues locals are passionate about, including traffic and school buses.

“Ever since they took away the free school buses I have perceived the traffic has got worse and so have other people. In my role here I could see the impact it was having on low-income families as well. I’ve been campaigning to both councils for three years to see free school buses returned.”

The campaigning has been successful, with a trial of free school buses for students living in Welcome Bay commuting to schools in town expected to begin next year.

Anna’s latest project is the establishment of a “community bumping space” – also known as a cafe – at the Welcome Bay shopping centre. It will be set up as a social enterprise along the same lines as The Daily Cafe in Te Puke.

“The idea is that we provide an opportunity to support youth through some sort of employment training, and support local businesses. In time we hope it could provide a separate income stream for the community centre.”

And while a business case is currently underway for the cafe, Anna is on the hunt for sponsors for the Fireworks Fiesta on December 7. She can be contacted at: 07 544 9774, email communitycentre@welcomebay.org.nz

The Community Expo is on Wednesday, October 3 from 11am-3pm at the Welcome Bay Hall.