Three Kaikohe residents who give up much of their free time driving people to medical appointments as far away as Whangārei have been named New Zealand's top health volunteers of 2022.
The St John Kaikohe Health Shuttle won the overall Health Volunteer of the Year title in the Minister of Health Volunteer Awards announced at Parliament on Monday, while Taitokerau Border Control won the top award in the Māori Health Volunteer category.
Health Minister Andrew Little said Kaikohe's Health Shuttle volunteers made sure people in their community could get to medical appointments, even during lockdowns.
"The team has just two drivers, but has been able to provide the service five days a week, and is on call the other days. That's real dedication to the community," he said.
The service is managed by Betty Wihongi with Colin Patterson and Lee Maihi doing the driving. Two more drivers are due to start shortly.
It started in 2019 with a station wagon transporting Kaikohe people to appointments in Whangārei, Bay of Islands, Kaitaia and Rawene and back home again.
They now transport more than 1000 patients a year from all over Northland using a five-seater, wheelchair-friendly van.
Wihongi said the health shuttle was her late sister Susan Dunn's baby.
"She wanted to get something up and running for the community. When she passed I was thrown into the deep of it. I've just taken over from her."
The award was "quite overwhelming", she said.
"When I heard what all the other volunteers had done in I thought we're nowhere near that calibre. But it just proves what a little community like Kaikohe can do."
She was grateful to the St John Area Committee and the tireless Kaikohe St John op shop volunteers who raised the funds to keep the shuttle running. The van was donated by New Zealand's Chinese community in 2021.
Patients could give a koha if they wanted but they were never asked — and many couldn't afford to anyway.
"We enjoy doing it, it's who we are. It's just about getting out there and giving a service to the community."
Driver Colin Patterson said a lot of people wouldn't be able to get to medical appointments — or wouldn't even have appointments — if it wasn't for the shuttle service.
All the same, he was shocked when their names were read out.
"We just do it because we want to help people, we want to make a difference," he said.
The judges said the shuttle drivers went "above and beyond" to keep people safe during the pandemic, and went to great lengths to help no matter what a patient's health status was.
Meanwhile, winning the Outstanding Achievement Award in the Māori Health Volunteer category was even sweeter for Taitokerau Border Control (TBC) given the controversy the group faced at the time.
TBC was founded in 2020 by former MP Hone Harawira amid concerns about people spreading Covid-19 to vulnerable communities by breaking alert level 4 travel rules.
The group assembled a team of up to 200 volunteers who set up checkpoints on main roads as well as providing support to events and tangihanga.
TBC was strongly opposed by, among others, former National MP Matt King who called on police to disband the checkpoints.
The award was received by Nyze Manuel and Huru Tipene, the group's Whangaroa and Waiomio co-ordinators.
Manuel, who is also the group's communications manager, never doubted they were doing the right thing.
"When the pandemic started all we knew was that it could spread and it could kill. We helped keep the virus at bay until more was known about it and the vaccine was available."
The checkpoints had allowed Māori to express their tino rangatiratanga (sovereignty) by protecting their own people while working with the Crown, in this case the police.
Manuel said the partnership with police evolved into a genuine Treaty relationship.
"We'd push against the police, they'd push back and we'd come to a compromise."
TBC regional co-ordinator Rueben Taipari said the award belonged to the whānau and hapū who rallied to Harawira's call.
"The recognition from the New Zealand Government for the voluntary contribution made by TBC is justification for those volunteers that the mahi they were doing was necessary and appreciated."
Taipari said politics and financial strain made it a tough journey at times but iwi and community support — and the volunteers' "amazing contribution" — had made it a success.
TBC was nominated by Warren Snow, founder of Kaitaia social enterprise CBEC, who said there was initially a lot of fear and distrust about the group.
"But through discipline and the results they achieved for the wider community those fears were dispelled," he said.
The Kaikohe Health Shuttle crew also won the award for top Covid Health Volunteer Team while Jim Blood of Whangārei was a runner-up in the Long Service category. He was nominated by Whangārei Riding for the Disabled.
Last year the Māori Health Volunteer Award was won by Whangaroa St John first responder Wiki Todd.