History was made in the Far North forest industry when the first intake under the 20-week Wāhine Toa programme formally graduated at Kaikohe's Kohewhata Marae.

"We have come together today to celebrate achievement, commitment and dedication. It hasn't been an easy journey," RecruitMe NZ director/manager and Johnson Contractors owner Jack Johnson said.

"I stand here today to congratulate each and every one of you on your journey to employment. We are very proud of you." RecruitMe supervisor/team leader Anne Tau said Mr Johnson had approached her last year to lead the programme he wanted to initiate (which became part of the government's Billion Trees strategy, and was partly government-funded).

"I started with 10 wāhine, and it was challenging but rewarding," she said. "We got to be a part of a male-dominated industry. We were the first Wāhine Toa crew in forestry for Te Taitokerau, and we were the first ever wāhine crew for Jack Johnson.

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"He took a big risk taking us on. He had extra responsibilities to take care of, like our own toilet being brought out to the forestry block. Jack has provided everything we have requested as women and more.

"We have worked in nurseries, sowing seeds, transplanting seedlings, seed collecting, we helped build three green houses. We also learnt so much about that industry. We got to plant natives on our tupu a whenua, which had us in tears of joy. We had the opportunity to undertake riparian planting and help the restoration of waterways on our whenua, and that helped uplift and rejuvenate not only our land and rivers but our whānau, hapū and iwi. Dave Bristow allowed us into his realm, and taught us so much on how to become our own business owners from within his nursery. We have wāhine thinking of maybe erecting their own nursery on their Māori whenua."

The programme had achieved an 80 per cent drug test pass rate, "and that was great. We made it on to TV," she added.

The students ranged in age from 15 to 41, and Ms Tau had also learned a great deal.

"I've always hated forestry, but with the chance to have a proper look at it I have learnt to appreciate all the hard work my ex-husband had to go through when he was in forestry. I had to ring him and apologise for not appreciating him enough before. I didn't know all the hard work it took to work there. From safety of yourself and that surrounds you, from the bees to trees and nature. I'm loving it. I've always been a lover of Papatuanuku, and now I get to help care for and look after her more this way."

One had been flown to hospital during the course, almost dying of a heart attack. A teenager had lost her grandfather but wanted to continue working. Another did not wish to miss work after her father was rushed to Auckland Hospital.

"No matter what hardship in their lives, they were wanting to stay strong and come in to mahi and be part of this crew," Ms Tau said. "They have grown into stronger young ladies, and five have come over with me into full-time work as the first Wahine Toa crew ."

Mr Johnson said the women would begin by pruning along access ways before heading into Ōputiki Forest, near Kaikohe.

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