This winter, children's charity Variety is facing unprecedented demand for warm clothes, dry shoes and beds from New Zealand families in hardship. The Herald spoke to families seeking help about how they got into hardship, what they need - and how Kiwi families can help.

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Every weekday for the past 20 years, Charlotte Sorenson has popped into the same St Heliers bakery on the way to work.

She picks up leftover bread for students at Pt England School, where she is the executive officer.


It is a Decile 1 school for Years 1 to 8 students which does not ask parents for fees. Every day, a few children turn up without lunches.

"We make up a box of cut-ups and pizza breads and put them out for afternoon tea," Sorenson says.

"The little ones will come because they're sent by their teacher. The older ones won't come because they're a bit ashamed."

Pt England School has referred more students to children's charity Variety than any other in the country – around 100 in the past six years.

This is partly because of the school's enthusiasm for supporting its students in and out of class. It also reflects the area's demographics.

Most of the students come from the eastern side of Glen Innes, where the median household income is $19,400.

Pacific families are the biggest ethnic group, and many of kids' families live in state houses.

Sorenson and a special needs teacher, Chris Bush, look out for signs of hardship among the students and their parents.


"We're talking about students who turn up on a day like today, it's not warm, and they haven't got a sweatshirt," Sorenson says. The sun is pouring across Pt England Reserve into classroom windows but it's crisp, around 12C.

"We say 'Where's your sweatshirt?'. And we get 'I haven't got one'."

Bush is what is known as a Resource Teacher: Behaviour and Learning (RTLB) and often makes home visits, which she says gives her some insight into families' living conditions.

"We know the children that are struggling," she says. "We know the ones that don't have a uniform."

The school does not get caught up on boundaries between classroom and home, between where the state ends and where family life begins.

"We don't really have a limit," Sorenson says.

"We are not just here for education. We are here for social reasons as well. Often we are not just educating the children, we are educating the whole family."

When a child meets the hardship criteria for Variety sponsorship, they are added to the waiting list. With 400 people on that list, the charity made a nationwide appeal this week for more donors.

Sponsorship is worth around $540 a year to a child, and it covers basic households items like warm clothes, dry shoes, and bedding.

It also pays for school resources like uniforms, rugby and netball fees, and school trips and camps.

Sorenson and Bush are unapologetic about using the funds for these purposes.

A proper uniform and inclusion in the school's sports teams are vital to childrens' self-esteem and their feeling of fitting in, Bush says.

It becomes very apparent who is in hardship if three children from the same family can't go on a $15 trip to MOTAT.

"People will read this and go 'It's another handout'. But you will be amazed the difference it makes to have a child in a proper uniform.

"And actually what we notice, a spinoff we didn't plan, was that it has taught our parents a little bit about planning and budgeting."

The sponsorship programme is not a complete solution to hardship. Most of the Variety families are sponsored throughout their school years and do not reach a point where they no longer need it.

It does, however, alleviate material hardship, give kids more confidence, and makes them "school ready".

Brothers Jabal, 7, and Jaxson, 5, are among the 70 Pt England students who are currently being sponsored. They are part of a family of six who live in a state house nearby.

The father works and the mother has decided to stay home until the children are older.

"I would call them a very functional family who are striving to be better," Sorenson says.

"They are trying to better themselves but are struggling with poverty."

The boys are shy, but beam with pride when asked about their smart uniforms and their rugby teams.

"He wants to get a job so he can buy his mum and dad a house," Sorenson says of Jabal.

"This is a family that's in the right direction, and we're just giving a helping hand to. A hand-up rather than a hand-out."


Nearly 150 children from families in hardship have been sponsored as a result of a partnership with children's charity Variety.

Facing unprecedented demand for basic items this winter, Variety decided to appeal for support from outside its existing donor base for the first time.

The Herald this week spoke to some of the households who were seeking help from the charity with essential items like warm clothing, bedding or school uniforms.

And at last count, New Zealand families had signed up to provide sponsorship worth around $45 a month for 146 children on Variety's waiting list. Another 453 donors had also signed up to Variety.

The charity and the Herald also received countless offers of shoes, meals, beds and other items which the charity does not have the capacity to distribute.

Variety chief executive Lorraine Taylor said the new donors had cut its waiting list to around 250.

"It's been so encouraging to see that members of the public have rallied and actively wanted to support families," she said.

"I think increasingly there has been a sense that this is something that happens to a certain type of person.

"And I think the stories over the last week have revealed that the problem is quite widespread and it impacts many demographics.

"I think it's really important that we do shed a light on the issues that are facing families who just live down the motorway or over in the next suburb.

"These are not families who are really remote from us. These are everyday New Zealanders that need help."

In the past five years, Variety had begun assisting a broader range of New Zealand households.

"Poverty is affecting people that are working and working really hard," Taylor said.

"We are seeing more instances of working families that are calling for assistance than we saw before."

Most of the demand for assistance was concentrated in Auckland, where families had been hit hardest by rising housing costs.

But Variety was also noticing ongoing demand from Christchurch, which it said it had expected to reduce as the city recovered from the 2010-11 earthquakes.

For more on this Herald series, see:
Hardship in NZ: Winter bites hard for single mum struggling to stay warm
Hardship in NZ: West Auckland family endure cold homes and weekly GP visits
Hardship in NZ: Rugby fees and a second pair of shoes out of reach of Manurewa family
Hardship in NZ: After bills paid, family has $1.68 a fortnight
Charity reports unprecedented demand for beds as families of up to six share a single bed