Te Waka Youth: The Healing Heart of Mel Torkington

It’s no secret that the youth of our country need help. With seriously alarming youth suicide rates and a generation who need guidance and support to tackle more complex problems than ever before, it seems like such a large issue that as individuals we can’t resolve alone; it’s no wonder that many put the issue into the ‘too hard basket’ and feel helpless.


But not everyone can be content with sitting by and watching our communities struggle. Mel Torkington is a woman who shows amazing strength; she is fiercely passionate about our community and kids and goes above and beyond to do whatever she can to be the rock that our youth so desperately need. While Mel would never say these things about herself, it’s important for us to recognise and celebrate the work that she is doing as it’s clearly making a difference in many young lives.


Te Waka Youth falls under The Coast to Coast Hauora Trust and exists to help address the gaps in service for young people from 11 to 26 years old within the rural township areas of North Rodney and East Kaipara. A relatively new service that was first launched in April 2018 and is an innovative client and context-driven service for young people. Offering a range of services, their primary focus is on counselling, mediation, advocacy and education around navigating life as a young person, alongside being a hang-out hub and a driving force behind projects for all youth in the area, regardless of background or affiliation.


It’s evident in speaking with Mel that she is passionate about this community. She is originally from and grew up in Leigh, attending school in Warkworth. “I’ve always wanted to support youth and the community in Wellsford. I knew that there were certain things that inadvertently disadvantaged Wellsford such as Auckland’s urban sprawl. While its benefited Omaha and Matakana, it’s left a lot of pressure on the community here with rising living costs as more and more people are moving to the area with not a lot of support for lower income-earning families.”


In 2010 she decided to go back to further her education and study social work at Massey University, gaining a Bachelor of Social Work, knowing that when she came out the other side that she would work in her local area. She took a position within the region for a number of years, seeing first hand that there was a real lack of locally targeted and accessible services on offer to young people. Mel had seen a number of kids slip through the cracks and she wanted to do something about it; the old adage of demand versus supply; there just aren’t enough resources to fill the demand. The youth wasn’t getting the support that they needed when it came to social service supports, such as mental health and advocacy.


With the pressure growing on the local area and the reluctant closure of a previous Wellsford service provider, the responsibility inevitably fell to service operators that were further away. Again this posed a logistic challenge and the Dome Valley acted as a silent divide with what little pieces of the pie available to the Wellsford community being absorbed into those based further down the line and kids were often not getting the accessible support that they needed. “Support needs to feel relevant to young people,” she says “they need to feel engaged in order for the work to reach the kids and really speak to them. By being local, this overcomes that barrier.”


Conversations first began at the end of 2017 between Mel and Maryanne Boyd from Strengthening Families who is also part of the Hauora Trust, they discussed the venue (a disused cottage on site) and how great it would be to have a youth service on their grounds, incorporating this with the existing community gardens and workshops allowing them to teach practical skills to equip young people with long-serving life skills. This would ideally be alongside a strong offering of social work services including support with the aim of growing to be able to have more social workers on the team.



The collaborative idea was there, but the people-power was not. Hauora Trust designated Mel with being the driving force to get the concept that would later become Te Waka Youth off the ground. The Trust provided six months of funding to get started, along with the building, and the rest has been co-funded by grants and generous donations from organisations such as Foundation North and Lotteries & COGS (Community Organisation Grants Scheme).


There is so much more to Te Waka Youth and the ripples of the service can be felt widely within the community. In the works are a series of creative events and initiatives being planned to engage the local youth community such as a youth festival Rise Up: Wellsford Youth which is all about celebrating the triumphs for local youth (date TBA), The Cinderella Project giving students access to dresses and accessories to attend their school balls, as well as a girl-group that regularly meet at the Te Waka base, and the planning of a charitable ball that she is in the process of getting off the ground.


Te Waka Youth has already grown to capacity with Mel having a full caseload and a waitlist for her services. “There is more than I can carry on my caseload and it’s clear that there is a need in our area for this type of work. It had been identified for a number of years by schools and other organisations that there was a real need for this kind of accessible support.” But like anything, you can only go as fast as the wheels of bureaucracy can allow and the aim is to have Mel supported by another couple of social workers and support staff to meet this definite need.


“I love what I do, but the internal politics of the sector can be frustrating at times,” she says, “there either needs to be more funding granted for youth services, or there needs to be fairer allocation of existing resources in order for more local providers to meet a clearly in-demand need.” Working with budgets that resonate with the phrase ‘the smell of an oily rag’, what Mel has accomplished has been no small feat. While the service is still quite new, there has already been a positive local change and several successes identified with local schools directly noticing a change in their students since the service was implemented.



“It’s important for kids to have a space to go to,” she adds “you aren’t going to get the same level of deep therapeutic process, such as EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing) from meeting up in a cafe and it’s often not practical to meet at their school or in their own home.” She adds. “It’s also not an acceptable expectation for kids to have to travel long distances to get help, putting unsupported kids on buses to Auckland or Warkworth from Wellsford when they are already struggling, just doesn’t work. It breaks my heart to have to say no to a kid or family because we just can’t take on every one that is in need.”


Te Waka youth is Mel, at the moment she is it. She’s working hard to secure funding, working on projects for the wider community, she’s got a full caseload of in-need kids and is always taking on more to support those around her; often when she is already stretched and she is even the one that picks up the mop and bucket to clean the space at the end of the day. It’s hard not to think what our community would look like without people like Mel; our youth are better for her, our community is better for her and she is no doubt making a difference in the lives of many. She is cut from a different cloth and the community would be remarkably different if she wasn’t doing what she is doing today.


Te Waka Youth is actively seeking funding and donations, for more information on how you can keep this vital service going, please visit their website for more information:

Words + Photography by Oh Gosh

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