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Pining for Christmas at Dunedin's Moana House

Claire Aitken, programme director at Moana House. Photo/Guy Frederick/North & South

An annual fundraiser becomes a Christmas community event.

It was the night before Christmas and all was quiet and still – except at Moana House, which was loud with the snoring of men, all tuckered out after another season of supplying Christmas trees to the good people of Dunedin.

The annual fundraiser has been on the calendar since 1987, when the facility opened as a residential home for adult male offenders with a history of addiction. Chainsaws roar into action on the first Thursday of December, and around 150 wilding pines are felled each day until just before Christmas.

Thirty years ago, the $2000 raised from selling the trees felt “like a million dollars”, says Claire Aitken, who’s been programme director at Moana House since it opened. Sales have increased since then, but costs around training, and health and safety protocols have also escalated. However, it’s not just about the money but the benefits that come from connecting and interacting with the community – and from doing their bit for the environment by helping to get rid of an invasive species.

“All the men, staff and whānau members get involved,” says Aitken, who credits a long list of supporters, including Hirepool, which lends the trailers, and a neighbouring rest home that provides a steady supply of scones for the men enrolled in Moana House’s year-long programme. “It’s about the kaupapa and giving them the opportunity to engage with the public, and for people to engage with us in a different way.”

The day starts at 6am with a two-hour drive to harvest the wilding pines, which are often in remote and exposed locations. The weather down south in December can also bring its own challenges, from extreme heat one day to snow the next.

The trees are sold at a roadside stall and prices are deliberately kept low, starting at $10. “By the time we get back to Dunedin, there are often queues of people waiting,” Aitken says. “Over the years, we’ve learned people are quite precious about trees, so we say we offer marital counselling at the same time.”

The fundraiser is part of the build-up to Moana House’s own Christmas festivities, a celebration many of the programme’s 17 funded residents may never have experienced growing up.

“We make it a special time without it being extravagant, and observe the basic rituals common to New Zealand homes around Christmas,” she says. “What we like to do is plant the seed for the men to develop their own whānau rituals in the future, and also learn the importance of support and connection to people, which is absolutely essential when they leave this programme.”

Christmas trees will be available from 6 December at 410 High St, Dunedin.

This article was first published in the December 2018 issue of North & South.

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