On an unseasonably hot November day, Atawhai Nursery sits like an oasis in the shadow of Mt Taranaki.
The 5.5-hectare grounds in Carrington Rd, just outside New Plymouth, heave with an assortment of native and exotic plants, glistening with water droplets from a welcoming sprinkler system, but Atawhai not only supports plants, it's also an haven for people.
The nursery, 9 kilometres from New Plymouth, is the workplace of more than 25 people with a range of intellectual disabilities, and to them it's a second home.
Atawhai provides friendship, structure and the chance to fit in and learn for people in an ever-changing world.
Sheds, shade- houses and rows of native trees fill the property, which was bought in 1975 by the IHC after Taranaki farmer William Thomas bequeathed some of his money to the organisation.
As an Idea (Intellectual Disability Empowerment in Action) services vocational unit, Atawhai Nursery is a hive of activity. Trolleys roll along the avenues, trowels throw up potting mix and the buzz of conversation fills the air. The atmosphere is organic and wholesome.
Nursery manager Nichola Manning is passionate about the opportunities Atawhai offers. For almost 20 years, she has worked the earth at Atawhai, helping to support new volunteers and dealing with the daily challenges of the different personalities she meets in her job.
For Manning, who grew up in a sheep-farming family, Atawhai Nursery is more than just a place to buy plants - it's all about the people.
"I have a horticultural background, and I've run my own small nursery, but Atawhai is about people discovering their own abilities," she says.
"Some people who come here hop out of the van and you think, 'Gosh, what's this person going to do?' and then they realise what they can do."
Manning leads a staff of five to six supervisors at the nursery and each day presents the new challenge of getting a very diverse group of people to work together harmoniously.
"It's not a job you could do on your own, the people who come here need support and it's the dynamics of getting people to work together.
"You want people to enjoy their time here," she says.
As well as being a small commercial nursery, Atawhai offers educational opportunities for the volunteers.
Under the guide of supervisors trained in teaching, nursing, engineering and farming, volunteers can upskill with unit standards in a range of different agricultural areas.
A horticultural graduate from Lincoln College with her own farming background, Manning and her team can help the people who come to Atawhai learn more about the way nurseries work.
"We're linked with the New Zealand horticultural industry training organisation and we can identify who wants to learn a unit standard," says Manning.
"As a workplace assessor, I get the paperwork in place. It's a practical learning experience and it helps motivate people."
Supervisor Janice McLeod specialises in plant propagation and says volunteers often find something they are good at and pursue the training with the goal of eventually finding work.
Although Atawhai is a commercial trade nursery, Manning reiterates the main focus - people first and plants second.
One of the newest faces at Atawhai belongs to the ever-smiling Julia Goodin, from Okato, who has been volunteering at Atawhai for only two weeks but loves it.
"I get to learn a few more things on my journey through life," she says. "I love the outdoors and giving things a go."
Goodin heard about Atawhai through her parents and comes to the nursery twice a week, although she wants to come more.
"I'm hoping to get another day up here. I want to learn about plants. It's just different here. It's peaceful."
Most of the 27 volunteers who come to Atawhai spend two to three days a week taking ownership of their work, whether it be potting plants or helping customers find what they're looking for.
New Plymouth's Sarah Cooke is an old hand at the nursery and loves being good at what she does.
The chirpy 40-something-year-old is partial to having a chat and, after coming to Atawhai for more than five years, she is well known about the place.
"I come here on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays," she says.
"I like coming here, gardening and being outside, and I want to learn the names of all the plants."
Like many volunteers at Atawhai, Cooke enjoys her independence and has a very busy week.
On the days she doesn't come to Atawhai, she goes to Life Skills Taranaki and rarely misses her 7.30am bus.
Some volunteers stay at Atawhai Nursery for years, while others move on to part-time jobs.
Established in 1975, the nursery was initially run as a tree farm, supplying poplar and willow poles to the Taranaki Regional Council.
In the last 18 years, the property has evolved into a containerised nursery specialising in native plants, and now supports a small feijoa orchard and a flock of suffolk sheep.
Manning says the recent closure of the New Plymouth Prison gardens has led to new opportunities for Atawhai Nursery, which has broadened its range of lines to cover plants no longer stocked by the prison.
The nursery's links to the Taranaki community run deep, with relationships established with landscapers, other nurseries, schools and a solid base of regular customers.
"People come to us," she says, "so we have that connection with the community.
"Customers who come here are aware that we support people. We're open to Gateway programmes and we have students from high schools who are interested in horticulture coming up as well."
Leaving the Carrington Rd property is like leaving a friend's house after a catch-up and a cup of tea - it's tinged with sadness.
You know that it's goodbye for now, but you also know you will be back.
Manning and her team of supervisors personify the essence of Atawhai Nursery brilliantly, with their commitment to both the people they work with and the plants they nurture.
"It's a supportive environment and the mixture of plants and people is perfect," Manning says, eager to get back to work.
"It's therapeutic for everyone."
- © Fairfax NZ News
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