"It's been the most challenging and rewarding job I've ever had."
These words from Athol Sanson as he steps down as leader of the Parks and Reserves team at the Rangitikei District Council.
His four-year journey of developing and working with local communities stretching from Marton to Taihape and Bulls to Ratana has come to an end.
A born-and-bred Rangitikei man, Sanson has always had a passion for horticulture from planting as an 8-year-old in Bulls to carrying out his studies in native plants in Palmerston North.
In early 2015, after running a small consulting business for eight years, Sanson decided to apply for a job the council was advertising as an opportunity to tidy up a region that had been neglected.
Successful, he was offered the job in July and saw that opportunity grow into something much larger than he anticipated.
"The council said, 'There's the parks department now go create it.' So I got the opportunity which I don't think many people have in the country to start something up from scratch and put standards in place, a vision in place, for our region's parks right from day one," he said.
Before the council created the new position, contractors had overseen the parks and reserves within the district for the previous 20 years.
Sanson said it was a vision of the council too to up the level of service within this department and bring it into an in-house unit.
Due to the team's success over the past four years, the council has brought Taihape and Hunterville CBD cleaning back into his team.
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"Our annual residence survey showed an 18 per cent increase in the level of service from our residents every year, I'm wondering when it's going to plateau. I've got the new one in and it's looking good," Sanson said.
And without his team he said he couldn't have achieved what he has today.
Never being a man to not want to go to work when he wakes up, he meets his team for a debrief every morning which is a highlight to his day.
"A philosophy I lead my team by every day is the better maintained our parks the better the wellbeing of the community.
"They're brilliant and the community recognises it," he said.
The team has grown in recent years, now made up of nine local full-time residents plus seasonal staff.
One team member Ben Woolston is working towards a national level four certificate in horticulture that Sanson is able to help him train for, being an assessor for the Primary ITO.
"I've helped train him up from the beginning and he's been one of my biggest successes," Sanson said.
His role has included tending to parks, sports fields and cemeteries as well as vast council responsibilities.
Spending three years to redevelop Taihape's town centre with native bush, and helping create a $400,000 skatepark and reforestation of dams in Marton are just some of Sanson's career highlights.
"The most exciting thing is the skatepark for me. I mean how many opportunities in your life do you get to work with a group like that and it took us all to do that project," he said.
It is the local communities that have played such a big part in his success, he said.
One of the first jobs he was assigned was a sand dune blowout in Koitiata where residents were worried it was going to engulf their playground.
Sanson and the community worked together to turn the sand dune into a section of native eco-sourced plants.
"I realised pretty soon, you didn't need a lot of money to get under way if you've got community engagement," he said.
And Sanson has improved each town centre within the district with plantings.
"In four years we have cleaned up parks and taken them to a standard where they can be built on.
"In four years we've gone from planting 200 to 300 plants to 20,000-plus plants across the region. This year it's going to top 30,000 and that's really cool."
Before moving to Colyton a few years ago, Sanson left behind one of the largest horticulture jobs in the lower North Island, gardening assisting for Lower Hutt City, Victoria University and Transit New Zealand undergoing work along Transmission Gully.
"This job has been more challenging than that was because when you have to come in and start from scratch you have to think, have I made the right decision for that person or have I got the right bit of machinery," Sanson said.
Despite all the challenges and frustrations, Sanson said he has thoroughly enjoyed his job.
"I've worked with a great bunch at the Rangitikei council. The phenomenal people and the friendships have become important to me and also being able to make a difference to a region is what I value.
"I'm very sad to be leaving, I'm not finished."
The now Feilding-based resident is going to take some time off to focus on health and wellbeing.