Aucklanders tell us about the great things they’re creating in their communities. Today, United We Stand youth workers

Debbie Munroe has been sleeping on a mattress in her living room for the past few weeks. Her bedroom is packed with boxes and bins of food, small gifts for kids, clothing. There are boxes of paper cups stacked high in the dining room, the laundry overflows with bins of thermos flasks. Donations are pouring in for the Family Fun Day her group, United We Stand, is running this weekend.

Ms Munroe is the founder and driving force of a new community heart - she doesn't like to use the word charity - that began feeding youngsters in Southmall some 18 months ago. Ms Munroe, a teacher-turned-youth worker, was fed up with the negative comments she was reading on Facebook about the youth causing havoc in the mall.

"Honestly, people were saying things like 'run them over' or 'shoot them'," she says. "But instead of judging people, let's find out why they're doing it. I started to just walk around. There were 30 kids, some as young as 8 years. We'd sober them up, give them a feed. We don't ask questions, we just have one question: 'How can we help'? When you show respect, they show respect for you."

In her day jobs, Ms Munroe had seen how wary people were of the official help, which seemed to come with lengthy forms to fill out and plenty of judgement. Holly Kyte, who you would think would be busy with her own six kids, aged from 18 months to 9 years, joined Ms Munroe almost from day one.

Advertisement

"Getting angry with people, that's not the answer," says Ms Kyte. "Food is a good start. We feed their hunger, but we're also feeding their 'social' hunger. They call me Aunty, I get hugs, they're eager to tell us about the night before. I just love it, putting a smile on their faces, it just melts your heart."

The two women are wary of becoming too official (more of those forms), but instead rely on their United We Stand Facebook page. When Ms Munroe posted her plans for the first soup walk, she had no idea what to expect.

"The first night was absolutely shocking. Five people met to help, we looked across the road and there were about 15 girls, drunk, throwing bottles, lying in front of cars, upsetting families walking by," she recalls. "We didn't approach the kids that night, didn't talk to them, just wanted them to get used to us being there."

The breakthrough came when one of the boys shouted "Debs, you're still feeding kids" - he'd remembered her from school, where she'd provided lunches and breakfasts.

"I'm a great believer in food, always had food in my classrooms," she says. "It does the most amazing things to people. We hand them hot soup and sandwiches, but it's the talking around the food, we just sit down and chat. One of our guys has had his struggles with addiction - the kids give him a huge amount of respect, they just love how open he is about his own life. We'll turn up [at the mall] and there are people there just waiting to help us."

As she talks to the Herald, Ms Munroe's daughter Ashley helps with the phone, which is ringing constantly - the messages start at 6am, it's often past midnight before Ms Munroe can switch off. A local pensioner has some baking that needs picking up, Ms Kyte is dropping some food parcels to a caravan park, someone needs nappies.

Without any corporate sponsors or anything official, the pair have put together the free family day with 2000 sausages to feed the expected crowds (last year around 1500 folk came), enough food to put together 50 food parcels; there's free clothing, entertainment for the kids. Unlike usual fundraising fairs, this is all about giving free stuff to the community, not asking the community for money, and people sure have been giving. Ms Munroe has modest plans to extend from Manurewa to Papatoetoe, Manukau and Papakura and, not surprisingly, would love a building that is not her house for storage for donations, distribution and to give the kids somewhere to come.

"If we could do what we do three nights a week during the day too, I'd be rapt," she says. "We could do so much, but in a way that's not got an agenda."

Advertisement

• United We Stand Family Fun Day is at Homai Primary School, Manurewa, Saturday 10am-3pm.