A Taumaranui woman who puts whānau above all else has been recognised for her tireless services over the past three decades.

Christine Brears has been made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for her  contribution to Māori and health.

The chief executive of Taumarunui Community Kokiri Trust said she was “very excited” and humbled by the honour.

“It’s given me the time to reflect back on what I have done in my journey. I’ve always been passionate about my mahi, but receiving an honour like this hasn’t been why I have done it.”

In the 1980s Brears began to notice health issues within her community, and set about changing the course.

“It was when kōhanga reo was mushrooming and in that environment it was clear to see there were health issues, like glue ear, for our tamariki. You didn’t need to be a nurse to see it.”

The wellbeing of the children spurred her on, creating a Māori community health trust in a bid to challenge the system.

“Seeing these kids just made me think, ‘what can I do? How can I fix this?’ So we created the trust and had a go.”

Brears began advocating for children’s health, resulting in mobile ear clinics and vision and hearing technicians visiting kōhanga reo. She also negotiated for the glue ear contract ‘Whakarongo mai’ to be piloted in the town.

Health trust created to remove barriers

She became more determined once she began to notice the barriers that prevented families from accessing help.

“There were three key things missing in healthcare at that time. There were language barriers. Not just with te reo Māori, but the jargon and clinical language was terrifying for some whānau.”

A lack of cultural aspects and affordability of services were also preventing whānau from accessing health care.

“These aspects lead us to look at relationships. We began working with the district health board, supporting them to visit kōhanga so we could reach our tamariki that way.”

Working with whānau, Brears said the holistic model of health care became more important.

“I began working in the houses of our whānau and I saw our women’s health was poorly. It made me think, ‘there’s more to do here’.

Brears said they began to notice a lack of Māori practitioners “at the coalface” of health care.

The trust, which became the Taumarunui Community Kokiri Trust in 1996, got its first clinical contract in 1998.

“Back then Māori health providers faced a lot of barriers but we just kept going. We still have that first contract — family planning with our rangatahi.”

Other programmes were developed over the years, with the trust today offering services across the justice, education, social development, health and budgeting sectors.

“Back then the buzzword was ‘early intervention’. So we thought that that has to start with our tamariki. So we started an early childhood education centre.”

A doctor’s practice soon followed.

“We have three general practitioners now. Back then it was hard to attract doctors. We had to recruit overseas which was expensive.

“Even then our model was a holistic one, it was always whānau ora. But the contracts back then were all about the individual.”

She said, for example, a child would arrive in hospital with asthma, given medication and sent home, only to be admitted to hospital a few days later.

“We knew if you looked beyond the child, you might find they’re going back to the same damp, mouldy, unheated home. You have to fix all of that, medication alone doesn’t fix the problem.”

Whānau Ora and navigators

In 2010 Te Puni Kōkiri worked with collectives of health and social service providers across the country to launch the Whānau Ora model.

Brears said the expectations were minimal, so the Trust decided to forge its own path.

“The contract was for something like 35 whānau and that didn’t even touch the tip of the iceberg.”

Her passion to help as many whānau as possible led to her changing the way the trust worked, with staff taking on the role of ‘navigators’.

Navigators worked one-on-one with patients; attending appointments, helping them to decode patient notes, and connecting them with other services.

“In that journey, there were tears and fears. It was hard. We were doing it our own way.”

Today, the Trust has more than 100 practitioners — 85 per cent of whom are Māori, most with qualifications.

“We are still trying to lead out on the whānau ora model. We believe this way is the answer to all the issues seen within other health services. An integrated approach that gives whānau a voice is the way forward.

“It’s about the mindset. It’s all about the wellbeing of the family, the whole whānau.”

Brears shows no sign of slowing down, with the next job to refurbish a building in Te Kuiti to house all the services together.

She rarely uses the word ‘I’ and deftly deflects any personal questions.

“It’s a team. I might be the visionary or the driver, but I need like minded people around me.

“What is the fabric of Kokiri? It is a service for all people. Our contribution to growing our own people.”

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