The first six weeks of my time as Mayor of Southland have been a whir, with so much to learn and so many people to talk to.
OPINION: One of the things which has stood out most for me in this time is the spirit of Southlanders. It's a trait I've seen countless times in the more than 30 years I've lived in Southland. It was again highlighted in the generosity and caring nature of Southlanders in the form of an outpouring of support for those affected by the Typhoon Haiyan.
While the Philippines is thousands of kilometres away, the tragic effect of the disaster has had an impact here in the Southland District, which is home to about 2000 Filipinos.
Many of these expats are the backbone of our farming industry, working on dairy farms around the province. I can only imagine how difficult it would be living so far away from home and seeing the devastation that's affecting family and friends without being able to be there for them in person.
Members of the Southland Filipino Society are doing a great job of fundraising to help their compatriots and there have been so many Southlanders who have reached out with kind words or who have made donations to different appeals. It is heartening to see that empathy and desire to help others. I am proud to belong to a province which shows such spirit.
That spirit of generosity and support is a theme which I've seen strongly and repeatedly in the district since my election. I've attended a wide range of events including community meetings, service club get-togethers, award ceremonies and business openings. The common theme throughout these very different events is that people are working hard, achieving goals and helping their communities.
For a province such as ours this is hugely important as we need to work together to build and improve our communities and make Southland an even more special place to live.
While the district covers a large geographic area, many of our towns are rural and small in both size and population, which can seem like a challenge. But that is also one of the things which makes us unique and I believe we should celebrate this, and that by continuing to work together we can continue to have strong communities.
I was lucky to see firsthand an example of how people in the community can work together for the greater good at the recent Burt Munro Challenge Wyndham Street Racing. Every year the town of about 550 people plays host to the event, and it was great to see everyone out and supporting an event that is truly unique to Southland and which showcases us to the rest of the country and beyond.
It shows what can be achieved through collaboration, with the event organised by the Southland Motorcycle Club and supported by Venture Southland and the community.
The event no doubt has an economic spin off for businesses in the area that weekend. That too is important for the Southland District. We also need to grow the economies of our smaller communities.
I have heard the argument that a number of communities have slowed down due to the influence of Central Government such as the Department of Conservation restructuring.
Tourism is the key to creating dollars in some of these communities, but with increased tourism comes pressure on infrastructure such as public toilets and roads. We need to keep on top of this and with community help we will.
There will be times when there is disagreement on an issue, sometimes a goal will take a long time to achieve or perhaps council may be unable to fund.
The important thing to remember though is that we don't need to fight amongst ourselves. Let's face this ever-changing world together, working together.
You have elected people to bring matters to council and I have no doubt they will do so with professionalism and a wealth of local knowledge.
I urge you, Southland residents, to be part of the process and get in touch with your elected members and let them know your thoughts on what could be done in your community. I also challenge you to ask yourself, what could I do to contribute in my community?
With the festive season approaching it's time to be with family, friends and loved ones and I encourage you all to take some time to spend with them as people are the most important thing.
Please remember that Christmas can be a lonely time for some of the more vulnerable people in the community and I ask you to show some more of that Southland spirit and reach out to those who might need it. Calling in to visit a neighbour for a cup of tea or kind words to a stranger walking down the street takes only a little effort and can mean so much.
I know Christmas can be a busy time and there is so much to do, but it's important to take some time out and reflect on the year that's been as well as looking ahead to the future.
I'd like to wish you all a happy and safe holiday and I look forward to meeting more spirited Southlanders and working together in 2014.
* Gary Tong is Southland District Mayor.
- The Southland Times