Jeanne O’Brien believes supporting the next generation is a lifestyle, not a job, and her “lifestyle” has resulted in a local hero medal from Kiwibank.
Announced last month, 100 local heroes all over the country were chosen, with two from Tararua District.
Kiwibank’s search defined local heroes as “individuals who have made a positive difference in their corner of Aotearoa. From Cape Reinga to Bluff, these Kiwi show selflessness and determination to make a difference.”
Jeanne says she was hugely surprised and slightly embarrassed to receive her medal, especially when she realised only 100 had been awarded nationwide.
Her nomination included the following:
“Known as ‘Aunty Jeanne’ across her community, Jeanne O’Brien is a champion for rangatahi and a creator of change. For the past 40 years, she’s been fighting for the needs of taiohi (young people) – identifying gaps and working on innovative solutions and opportunities to ensure no one gets left behind.
“From supporting young people to get their driver’s licence to providing mental health education, upskilling and professional training, overseeing sporting and holiday programmes, and youth mentoring – no barrier is too hard to tackle for Aunty Jeanne.
“She believes supporting the next generation is a lifestyle, not a job. Genuinely invested in their lives, worlds, and futures, she empowers and supports her team to do the same.
“Jeanne walks alongside taiohi, remaining a pillar of strength. Jeanne’s passion, support, and love for all taiohi has remained constant, with taiohi at the centre of all that she does.”
Jeanne says she loves working with young people.
She says her job has been a lifestyle ever since she began volunteering by helping the local youth at a Friday night drop-in centre in the Carnegie building.
She says the drop-in centre started after concerned locals felt their youth had nowhere to meet and the Dannevirke Community Youth Forum saw the centre as a solution. It grew very successfully and the Carnegie Centre became their home away from home.
At that time she was barely older than the youth she was helping but she felt she had found her calling.
She says she completed a Social Work Certificate which allowed her to focus on youth work, picking up the youth portfolio for the Safer Community Council.
When a paid position was offered to run Carnegie and the first co-ordinator left she took on the job and it morphed into Tararua Community Youth Services – a position she still holds 30 years later and loving it still.
Jeanne has worked hard to provide support for young people, getting to know them and gaining their trust so she can help them to get on with life.
She says often they have an idea about what they want but don’t know how to get there.
If they do not know what they want she believes they have not seen enough of the world and need to be exposed by participating in experiences like holiday programmes, being part of a team, gaining skills like the EIT Building courses offered a few years ago. She uses the phrase “Go and Grow”. Often they return and give back.
Getting a driver’s licence is often the first step and TCYS has got a very good programme running.
She says she tells them “little is big” because every little step or small decision is a step towards the bigger picture. Every person is important and Jeanne pleads with people approached by someone asking for help never to turn them down because they may never see them again.
She says TCYS has grown from a tiny organisation funded $10,000 per year into one with a million-dollar budget as trust in her work has increased.
She says her role has become more complicated as she has to deal with compliance, health and safety, policy and procedure, HR and finance nowadays but her pleasure in her work is getting alongside her young friends and working with them to achieve their goals. It is a lifestyle.
Jeanne’s award however might be only the start.
The 100 Local Hero Medallists go forward to Category Judging Day for the 2023 Kiwibank New Zealand Local Hero of the Year Te Pou Toko o te Tau national award and 10 semifinalists will be announced in mid-January
The 10 semifinalists will be considered at the executive judging day in late January. Three will be announced as the finalists in the New Zealand Local Hero award in February, and of those three, one will be awarded the 2024 Kiwibank New Zealand Local Hero of the Year Te Pou Toko o te Tau title at the Gala event in March 2024 in Auckland.
The second medallist is Richard Daymond from Tararua College.
Dave Murdoch is a part-time photo-journalist working for the Bush Telegraph and based at Dannevirke. He has covered any community story telling good news about the district for the last ten years.