An elderly Mangere woman is driving renewed efforts to ensure children are off the streets and in school, writes

Rebecca Blithe

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Leatu Ah Voa has a big smile and a big heart. While this Mangere resident may be well past retirement age, the 73-year-old early childhood teacher still has big plans to help children in Mangere.

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Strolling outside the community hall on Kirkbride Rd, Mrs Ah Voa spies two children in the playground nearby.

"She must be about 12," she says of the older of the two. It's a Wednesday afternoon, well within school hours and the sight is another reason for Mrs Ah Voa's concern about what she sees in her neighbourhood.

"I feel pity in my heart when I look at these kids running around and not going to school. I see a lot of them on the streets," says the mother of 10, who moved her family to New Zealand from Samoa to find more academic opportunities for them.

"That's why I came to New Zealand - it was in 1969 - to give my kids a better education.

"It's the literacy and numeracy that are important. Why should Polynesian people be low down in the statistics?" says Mrs Ah Voa, who was responsible for establishing the Loi Mata Ole Alofa Samoan/English language preschool.

With other educators, she hopes to run it at Mangere Central community hall, just down the road from Mangere Central Primary School. She says they will provide for preschool and some school-aged children who need help with numbers and reading, and the close proximity to the school will make access to after-school care OSCAR (see sidebar) easy at the hall, which has been used for childcare in the past.

Fellow teacher and sister-in-law, Sulufeleese Ah Voa, supports the plans and says there are lots of children who would benefit from a new centre.

"Too many kids are at home when they should be at school. I've got heaps of young ones from my family and my church that could come along. For us, language is really important. That's why we really need for them to be bilingual," she says.

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Mrs Ah Voa agrees, saying she hopes attending the centre - which will open in June depending on funding - will help make the transition to English-speaking schools easier.

At the moment, Mrs Ah Voa teaches religious education to the St Theresa youth group in Mangere East on Sundays and clearly has no plans to slow down.

"I love children. If I stay at home, I'll dig my own grave. Going into a rest home - I'm not going to end up there. I don't want to give up the use of my time."

An administrator with the Mangere Central community hall, who preferred not to be identified, says Mrs Ah Voa's group could be accommodated once schedules had been decided.

Mangere-Otahuhu Local Board chairman Leau Peter Skelton says the board is encouraging Mrs Ah Voa's plans.

"She's trying to help unfortunate children. We're trying to connect her up with the right people."

The Oscar goes to...

OSCAR - Out of School Care and Recreation - programmes are predominantly run by

community organisations. They focus on after-school and holiday activities for children

aged 5 to 14.