Michelle Thompson spent about 20 years working for banks before becoming an employment navigator for The Salvation Army two years ago.

The Salvation Army is a Protestant Christian church and an international charitable organisation. It has fought poverty and social and spiritual distress in New Zealand since 1883, and Thompson is now in the front line of its education and employment division's battle to find work for Northland people placed on probation by the courts.

When she joined up in 2016 Thompson and another employment navigator, Sandy Howes, were at the helm when the Sallies started sending a van containing 10 probation workers from Whangarei to Dargaville for daily work harvesting kumara.

"You can see the pride when they get paid. You see it in the way they walk."

Harvest work generally winds up after two or three months, but the pilot project expanded to cover kumara planting, sorting and weeding and there are now usually two vans carrying 20 probation workers from the city to the Kaipara kumara fields daily.


And the shuttle service has branched out, with three further vans now collecting probation workers from three pick-up points in Whangarei and another at Kaikohe to provide staff for Kerikeri orchards.

Thompson said the Bay of Islands work started with Orangewood Fruitgrowers recruiting a team of eight men and two women who worked a 6pm-4am night shift in a Kerikeri packhouse.

The shift work was successful and the education and employment division was invited to supply staff for winter and summer kiwifruit pruning and harvesting.

The Sallies' reliable service gained traction because the packhouse operators could promise orchardists 10 staff would arrive daily to carry out designated tasks on time, Michelle said.

Orangewood HR assistant Michelle Mora confirmed the company was happy with the probation workers and aimed to continue to hire them.


Along with kumara crops at Dargaville and kiwifruit at Kerikeri, staff were being provided for a raspberry grower at Maungatapere.

The Salvation Army also runs a driving school so people on probation can be trained to drive vehicles like forklifts or tractors which could make them more employable.

Thompson said her work involved the Probation Service and Corrections. It was a pathway to long-term employment and did not include any church messages.

Most of the probation workers were men aged 20-60 on probation for offences ranging from breaches of driving regulations to serious charges.

Thompson said The Salvation Army team had a lot of humour.

She and Sandy Howes fuss around the "boys" like mothers, supporting them.

"We put these boys first. We care for all of them — hand on heart. You have got to have that trust."

The two employment navigators go to court to support their workers, telling judges their "boys" and "girls" are good workers and merit the courts' support.

And the reward for the two women comes on occasions like last Christmas when the "boys" can afford to buy presents for their families.

"You can see the pride when they get paid. You see it in the way they walk," Michelle said.

Employers wanting to support the scheme may contact Michelle Thompson on 09 438 4470