Margaret Lewis wins Kiwi Bank's Local Hero Medal!
Every year, members of the public put forth nominations for individuals who have made a positive difference in their corner of Aotearoa.
This year, we nominated Margaret, who for the past five years has worked endlessly to support rough sleepers, and wahine who are part of the Merge Community.
What sets Margaret apart is her humble passion and big heart to help others.
In a very Margaret (humble) acceptance of the Kiwi Bank's Local Hero Medal, she deflected the spotlight, insisting, "It's not about me, it's a team effort."
We politely reminded her that, great teams are the result of great leadership. To say that she cares, would be an understatement.
You can check out the other local heroes here
Her work begins with relationships that have trust and respect at it’s core.
“There’s no I in teams, and all that I help happen is led by the Merge Community team and our combined lived experiences”.
Her natural ability to connect with people helps her to facilitate positive changes in their lives. From helping people find casual work (through Lifewise Works, a social enterprise she also manages) and strengthening their work skills, to sharing cooking skills and reducing food waste, Margaret empowers whānau to take control of their own lives.
Known affectionately as “whaea” by her team, Margaret’s kind, warm, and understanding approach has cultivated a sense of family within Merge Community, a tight-knit group dedicated to supporting those experiencing homelessness, mental health challenges, addiction issues, and heartbreak.
The name “whaea” in te reo Māori translates to “mother” or “female elder.” It is a term of respect and endearment used to address or refer to women, particularly those in roles of care, guidance, or leadership.
Being called “whaea” by her team is a testament to the type of leader she is.
"There’s no I in team, and all that I help happen is led by the Merge Community team and our combined lived experiences” - Margaret.
One of Margaret’s recent triumphs is the Ringa Wera initiative, a project addressing the challenge of access to healthy food.
Every week, she organises cooking sessions encouraging people to cook with unfamiliar ingredients including those they might find, forage for, or be given. Through this project, Margaret can see how together they bring joy and excitement into the lives of those involved, allowing them to explore new possibilities and support each other in the process.
Through her connections, Margaret secured a new commercial kitchen, providing chefs a space to practice their culinary skills. Earlier this year, she played a pivotal role in organising a fundraising dinner for Merge Community, featuring chefs who had benefitted from Ringa Wera cooking classes.
The success of Ringa Wera has not only addressed a community need but also brought joy and excitement into the lives of participants. Margaret’s approach, rooted in choice and agency, has allowed individuals to explore new possibilities and support each other in the process.
She firmly believes that people should have the power to decide their own path, and she works tirelessly to remove barriers and provide freedom of choice. She understands the importance of storytelling in advocating for whānau rights and entitlements. Margaret’s own lived experience has shaped her work, as she openly shares her scars and creates a safe space for others to do the same.
“I like the way we don’t have to be hungry when Ringa Wera is on. It's exciting because we’re going to get fed. What better place to do it other than with the whānau. The way we all come together and we kōrero. Everyone is talking and interacting. I love that part” - Ringa Wera Chef.
Margaret always goes above and beyond, especially for social justice.
Not only does Margaret focus on people, but she also considers the larger picture of processes and policies. She advocates for fairness and social justice. Some of you might remember, the “Stuck in the 80s” campaign, where she advocated to increase the abatement rate for those living on a benefit in New Zealand
Winning the New Zealand Local Hero Award is more than just recognition for Margaret. It would validate her belief in the whānau-led approach and provide affirmation for the amazing work being done by the Merge Community. This award inspires courage and encourages them to continue making a difference in the lives of those they serve.