Janine Nillesen is a force to be reckoned with. The unstoppable Mangere-Bridge-based, Ambury Farm ranger fills her days teaching kids how to milk cows, shear sheep and make butter, traversing the farm to trap rats and and stoats and waging war on weeds. In her spare time, the mum-of-three battles waste and builds strong local bonds as the co-founder of Friends of the Farm - local volunteers who prioritise community, the natural environment and fun in equal, hearty doses.

Friends of the Farm (FoF) was dreamed up nearly ten years ago by Nillesen , and finally came to fruition after a chance meeting with Frances Hancock, a 40-year local who used to live next to the farm. "With Janine, anything seems possible," says Hancock. "She's a powerful role model, extraordinarily generous and an amazing organiser. People love her because she not only cares so much for our place, but also because she's so much fun to be around!"

This sense of fun infuses the work that FoF do in their patch. The group's first community meeting involved a tour of the farm complete with lava cave exploration, wool spinning and brainstorming at the headland over cups of teas and biscuits. "One of the people who turned up said to me, 'What I'd really like is wonderful childhood memories for my kids,'" says Hancock. "That became a real guiding light for us, because many of our families can't afford to have the opportunities available to other families. There was a real opportunity for us to create things that families could become part of and enjoy."

The group works alongside the farm, finding special ways for people to connect with the environment and their community. They've run events like the 150-strong moonlit lantern walk (with lanterns made from old tin cans), past sleeping farm animals and along the water's edge, jam and marmalade-making workshops using surplus fruit, and huge Easter egg hunts over the rambling farmland.

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Each year FoF rounds up the locals and invites them to 'Sweet Talks', a community cafe at the Farm where residents reconnect and re-imagine; conceptualising events while nibbling on delicious desserts. "It's a great chance for the long-timers and the new-comers to meet one another and get a conversation going about what people value in the community, what they want to see us doing and how we can work together," explains Hancock.

"Whatever we're doing we're always thinking about how to do it in a way that is waste-wise, how we can care for people by connecting people and making sure we have a good time, and building the bonds of community that will really see us through the good times and the bad," she adds.

The group is run by ten core volunteers, all women. It's also built a great relationship with Auckland Council's Waste Minimisation team leading to the development of waste reduction projects in the community. These include pop-up working bees, (the latest of which saw 45 locals donning gloves to rescue 192 kilos of rubbish from under the old Mangere Bridge), and maintaining a regular presence at the local Sunday market to collect soft plastic - an initiative that has been so successful that the FoFs are now establishing a permanent soft plastic drop-off spot.

The group, which among the core members boasts two environmental educators, also runs waste workshops explaining the whys and wherefores of waste. "People really welcomed the messages," says Hancock. "A lack of information is a huge barrier to behaviour change. But the minute you give people information and encourage their commitment, they want to do more and more."

These women walk the talk. Whether it's Nillesen blitzing through her friends' bins teaching them what rubbish goes where ("When they see me coming, they hide their rubbish," she jokes), or Hancock volunteering to be the first family in a household waste pilot project (turning a 2.8 kilo giant rubbish bag worth of waste into 0.8 kilos, which would fit in a supermarket plastic bag) or muscling the FoFs into local events to get organisers thinking zero waste.

And they're seeing the rewards already, with businesses, event organisers and schools coming to the FoFs for help, and official recognition this year in the Mangere-Otahuhu Local Board's Community Volunteer Awards.

The FoFs hope that by teaching locals to love their neighbourhood, they will eventually be able to spread their efforts throughout the wider community. "Our focus at the moment is around creating an 'our-patch' mentality, so people adopt a part of the bridge, and they take care of it," says Nillesen . "That way, people don't need us to organise an event or working bee. They will do it themselves."

Never been to the Farm? Come and feed the lambs and calves, and learn about life on a farm for free on October the 4th.

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For more information head to facebook.com/FriendsoftheFarmMangereBridge
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