Shell-shocked staff at the Nor Western Cook Island Early Childhood Centre are putting two rough years of mismanagement and a theft behind them and looking forward to a brighter future.
Hemi Jay Matenga, 30, was jailed for 22 months last month after pleading guilty to a charge of theft by a person in a special relationship between December 2012 and May 2013.
Matenga, who volunteered to be the centre's treasurer, gambled away $150,000 of the preschool's money in just six months.
The Education Review Office also criticised the centre for mismanagement in its reports between 2010 and 2012 until new managers took over in early 2013.
Rachael, a parent and member of the management committee since last August, says the early childhood centre had a history of poor record-keeping and financial dealings.
"Basically we inherited a big mess," she says.
"It put us further into debt and staff went without pay for about seven weeks."
Families also took it upon themselves to clean the centre for a number of months when they couldn't afford to pay for it.
The Matenga ruling at the Waitakere District Court did not include reparation so the centre took the decision to the banking ombudsman and got at least half of the money back.
Centre manager Taokia Gill says the discovery was made when Matenga failed to hand over bank statements and financial documents when asked.
She says the centre is now ready for a fresh start to become better than ever.
"It's been stressful and trying but also a learning process which has given me strength and courage.
"We're the only Cook Islands early childhood centre in West Auckland so we need to keep going.
"We didn't want the kids to suffer because of what happened."
She credits a parents committee with helping to support staff and fundraising to help the centre get back on its feet.
The Ministry of Education has now given permission for the centre to extend its roll of 25 to 30 children. Other changes on the agenda include a name change and plans to turn the centre into an immersion learning environment where the Cook Island language is predominant.
"We want a fresh start and a name that would be inspiring. We want to show the community it can be done," Gill says.
"We've got the people and the heart to come back."
The centre is calling for community support and help with resources and technology, building and teaching and governance.
Email nwciece@vodafone. co.nz or phone 833 3222 if you can offer any support.
- Western Leader
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