I hear her before I see her.

"Hi darling," Tania Lewis-Rickard says to the woman behind the counter.

I get the impression even though it's my first time at the cafe on Wharf St, it's definitely not hers.

She beams across the room and gives me a hug.

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It's only the second time I've met her but I can already tell she's one of those people who effortlessly and unintentionally lights up a room as soon as she enters.

As we take a seat I notice the large heart-shaped greenstone hanging around her neck. It stands out against her electric blue shirt, encompassing everything she's about.

Aroha.

Who is Tania Lewis-Rickard?

Lewis-Rickard wears many hats.

She's a mum, wife, teacher, artist and volunteer. She's a multi-tasker, with many talents and a big heart.

She has been a secondary school teacher for 15 years and it's a job she loves, with lots of ups and downs. In fact, she describes it as one of her passions in life.

"I hate it sometimes," she says, taking me by surprise.

"It's okay you can actually write that," she laughs.

She laughs a lot, the loud, happy, belly laugh kind.

"Because it gets challenging sometimes, like any job."

But the rewards outweigh the challenges, she explains.

"When you see kids' lives change, when you see them happy and they've got good outcomes for their future, that's rewarding."

Lewis-Rickard is also the founder of Kai Aroha, a voluntary-run organisation which feeds Tauranga's homeless every Friday night in Greerton.

"It's about showing love and aroha through the serving of food," she explains.

And she uses her teaching skills with her efforts to help people in the community.

Kai Aroha Kids is a branch of Kai Aroha, set up this year involving students from around the area to take over and run the Kai Aroha meals once a month.

Kai Aroha Kids teaches the youth how to care for others. Photo/ Supplied
Kai Aroha Kids teaches the youth how to care for others. Photo/ Supplied

Youth aged between 10 to 15 are responsible for buying the groceries, serving the meal, sharing a karakia and clean up after the meal.

"The purpose is to teach students, kids, tamariki and mokopuna how to give to those in need."

Lewis-Rickard says the students run their meals like a "well-oiled machine".

She remembers a time when a "Kai Aroha Kid" kicked her off the coffee station when she was not doing it right.

"They're so good," she says.

Delegating is a large part of how Lewis-Rickard can achieve so much.

Juggling everything is something that is often put into perspective by her husband Tawhai.

"He says 'honey, as long as you're fulfilling your purpose and you're sustaining your Friday night meals then everything else is a bonus'.

"And it's so true."

The beginning

It started when Lewis-Rickard was living in Greerton.

She would keep basic food supplies in her car and give them to homeless people when she came across them.

"When supplies were getting low in the car, I'd go and get some more to give out," she says.

She saw the need for her car supplies increase as more and more people were sleeping rough on the streets.

"We could see it happening. People asking for money and sleeping on the street. It wasn't as apparent back then as it is today, but it was still there."

But it was an elderly man living in a bus stop on Greerton Rd that was the catalyst for Kai Aroha.

"My son and I would go and give him coffee and breakfasts, and lots of people were feeding him too," she says.

"He died and it was really sad.

"Yes, he had alcoholism, mental health issues and his family wanted him but didn't want his habit."

She says the elderly man was classed as "one of those people who couldn't be helped".

That was enough for Lewis-Rickard and she wanted to do more to help the homeless community.

"So I just thought, 'you know what I'm just going to go on the street'."

Tania Lewis-Rickard. Photo/ Andrew Warner
Tania Lewis-Rickard. Photo/ Andrew Warner

Sharing the aroha

The initial idea was to provide a weekly meal for the homeless community.

One of the first tasks was finding a suitable name for the group.

The concept of calling the meals 'Tania's Soup Kitchen' makes her shudder.

"Ew gross," she laughs as she takes a sip of her half strength cappuccino.

"I wanted something with meaning and real substance to it," she says.

It wasn't until Lewis-Rickard was explaining the concept to someone the name came to her.

After checking the context of the wording "Kai Aroha", everything fell into place.

The first meal was served in May of 2016 and only a handful of people turned up.

Tania Lewis-Rickard started Kai Aroha in May 2016. Photo/ File
Tania Lewis-Rickard started Kai Aroha in May 2016. Photo/ File

Lewis-Rickard remembers it well.

"It was just soup that night," she laughs.

Fast forward two years and up to 70 people attend the meal on Friday nights.

The biggest demand for the service comes from struggling families and elderly people.

But it's not just about the food.

"Some people come to Kai Aroha because they're soul searching, they're lonely, some people are making friends and just wanting to connect with the community.

"It's nourishing the body, heart and soul."

The A team

Lewis-Rickard organises a voluntary team of about 25 people who keep the meals coming every week.

They work in different capacities where some are behind the scenes or on the frontline serving the meal.

She likens the bond between the Kai Aroha team to a flax woven kete.

If a strand of harakeke [flax] falls out of place, there are enough other pieces to hold the kete together.

"We're the strands that hold it all together, the kete doesn't come undone because there's enough of us," she says.

But turning out weekly meals and serving to those less fortunate can become tiring.

Lewis-Rickard recalls a time when she sat her team down and spoke to them about the reasons they were turning up each week.

"I said 'if you are not passionate about your community and you're starting to feel lethargic or like you don't want to be here, then maybe you need to pull back and have a rest'."

And that is what's done from time to time.

"We have a flimsy roster that works for us and an understanding within the team."

The Kai Aroha meals were put on hold for three weeks over Christmas last year, the longest break since the meals started.

"The team were so eager to get back to it by the end of it."

New beginnings

Pushing Kai Aroha forward is something Lewis-Rickard strives for.

She can barely contain her excitement and her hands fly into the air as she talks about Kai Aroha moving into the Greerton Community Hall in a few weeks.

Being able to provide a place where the community can all sit down together and enjoy a hot meal is what is most exciting.

"It will be a real buzz," she says.

Serving meals outside during the winter months can be a struggle for the group.

"You'd be amazed at how many people still come out in the rain," she says.

"I say to the people 'what are you doing here you should be at home' and they say 'we just want a feed'.

"Okay, fair enough," she smiles.

"I just can't wait until we go into that hall."

Tania Lewis-Rickard. Photo/ Andrew Warner
Tania Lewis-Rickard. Photo/ Andrew Warner

Struggles

It hasn't always been smooth sailing for Lewis-Rickard and her team.

She tells me the biggest difficulty she faces is sustaining Kai Aroha.

"The thing is Kai Aroha got too big too quickly.

"I started to lose control to the point I didn't even know who my team was and the structure started to crumble a bit."

She made a decision to not take on any more volunteers and started to "work on her team".

There has never been a shortage of people wanting to help out but at times there have been a shortage of resources, Lewis-Rickard says.

Some items are donated but volunteers use their own resources so if a team member can't make it on the night everyone makes do with what they've got.

"There was a couple of times there where we didn't have enough food, due to illness of the group.

"I don't ring them up and ask where's their food, it's just what turns up on the night."

Fundraising is also a constant effort.

"I've got to keep fundraising all the time because money goes out quick. I've just spent $156 at Gilmores on plates and cutlery for the next month," she says.

Recycling is important to the group which is why a little bit extra is spent on biodegradable materials.

Plastic cutlery and plates is something Lewis-Rickard very much dislikes.

"It burns your hands, the food slides off and the material doesn't break down when you dump it in the bin."

She often tells people who enjoy the meals to reuse their plates where possible.

Being accepted for what she does has been hard for Lewis-Rickard.

With the current issues Greerton is facing with aggressive behaviour and begging in the centre, it hasn't been easy being on the front line.

"We've had some tough challenges being out in Greerton and being accepted for what we do," Lewis-Rickard says.

She often reminds her team they are the "positive energy" in the community. Something she finds rewarding.

"Regardless of who you are we are here to serve you," she says.