Hikoi a homecoming for Plunket

Being called on to Puketeraki Marae yesterday was a special moment for myself and my Plunket colleagues, as we celebrated 110 years of Whānau Āwhina.

We were joined by Kāti Huirapa whānau and tamariki from Karitane School for our hikoi from the marae to Karitane, home of our founder Sir Truby King, and the wellspring from which Plunket emerged over a century ago.

Each of us felt privileged to be there and reflect on our connection to Plunket and to the staff and volunteers who came before us who, like us, believed in making a difference for tamariki and their families.

For me, it was a significant day personally and professionally: I have deep connections to the area of Karitane through my whānau. I whakapapa to the Puketeraki Marae through my grandmonther Ripeka Mei Harper who was born and raised there. She is the half sister of my Great Uncle Mutu – the very first Plunket baby.

When we were called on to the marae, I felt like I was coming home. It was powerful to connect with my whānau, and to Plunket’s heritage, and one I had not expected to feel quite so strongly.

It was clear I wasn’t only one experiencing a kind of homecoming – it was powerful hearing staff and volunteers talk about the renewed sense of connection they felt to the history of Plunket through the experience.

Plunket’s birth is a story that many New Zealanders are familiar with – a pioneering man who introduced medical practices that helped save babies’ lives, reducing the high infant mortality rate, and founding a uniquely New Zealand organisation to ‘help the mothers and save the babies’.

Yesterday, we celebrated a lesser-told part of our story - while many people know the famous name of Truby King, they are less familiar with the names of two important local Māori women, Mere Hipi and Ria Tikini from Kāti Huirapa, who were midwives.

Much of the work Truby King did in those early years was established on knowledge from Mere and Ria’s work with mothers and babies. Together, they worked tirelessly to connect and support families in Karitane, combining traditional knowledge with new learnings about the benefits of breast feeding following Truby King’s visit to a resilient hill tribe on the islands off Japan.

Their gift of their knowledge to Truby King all those years ago sparked the idea of Plunket, which has become an important treasure to Iwi Māori and everyone else living in New Zealand.

When I thought of the unique collaboration between my tipuna and  Sir Truby King, which effectively gave birth to this organisation, I realised not only is collaboration essential for our ongoing survival – it is part of Plunket’s DNA.  

Our ability to make difference of a lifetime for today’s tamariki hinges on working shoulder-to-shoulder with others – building strong and enduring relationships with iwi, with communities and with other organisations committed to making the difference of a lifetime to New Zealand families and whānau. We can’t do it alone.

Truby King’s characteristic innovation - what we’d term today as ‘disrupting’ standard medical practices to establish new life-saving ways of working - is also a thread you can trace throughout Plunket’s history. The understanding that to help whānau and tamariki, we must listen to their needs and continually adapt in response has meant Plunket has survived over a century. Just a few weeks ago, Plunket marked another significant milestone by becoming a national charitable trust - a change to our governance structure brought about by our membership who recognised that as one united organisation, we’re better placed to help families today and for the coming 110 years.  

As I experienced when coming home to my marae yesterday, there is lasting power in the connection each of us has with our whānau. Generations of Plunket people have sought to support whānau and help ensure tamariki have strong foundations in their early years, because where you start matters. Plunket’s role today, just as it was 110 years ago, is to work with others and support whānau so every child gets the best start in their early years. 

by Jen Riches 15 February 2018

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