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Radio and refugees helped shape new house head

Flagstaff Team

New Devonport Community House manager Gemma Dickinson tells Helen Vause about her plans to attract more young users – and her experiences working with displaced people in Berlin.

Open to suggestions… Gemma Dickinson is ready to trial new ideas for the Devonport Community House

Things are buzzing at the Devonport Community House with new classes pulling strong attendance, more activities scheduled and new blood at the helm.
Gemma Dickinson is delighted to be the new community house manager, having taken up the role in January, and she’s rolling up her sleeves to take on its challenges.
She says in a sector beleaguered by shrinking funding, spaces like the community house are needed more than ever before.
While Dickinson is quick to say she is very open to suggestions and ideas to help shape the way forward, she has plenty of new projects planned already.
One is working to have more to offer local youth, and to fine-tune the offerings that will bring more of them across the doorstep.
Young people are a hard group for well-intentioned services to attract.
Dickinson has reached out to groups in that demographic and asked them to help to identify and provide whatever might help bring more young people to the space.
Over summer, the facility’s upstairs space dedicated to youth activities has been painted by a team of volunteers, and a programme for Tuesday and Thursday afternoons and early evenings will be launched next term.
A donation of $7000 has been available to help put her plans in place.
“There are ideas in discussion for this space but we know for example from feedback that a dedicated study time and space would have appeal to young people. If they want to study in pairs and groups, they can do that here.”
The house has already had increased engagement with another demographic – young women, including parents in Dickinson’s own age group, who are now coming to the classes on offer.
She says this is largely due to the calibre and profile of the exercise classes now available and their presenters, two of whom have an established following among women.
One of those drawcards is Sarah Ostergaard, a highly regarded trainer who developed the high intensity RPM (Spin) programme for Les Mills gyms with her husband, Glen. A local parent, Ostergaard started her exercise classes at the community house last year and word of her expertise has spread with local women of all ages.
Another world-class athlete and trainer, Kauan Gracie, has also come through the door with her skills in recent years. Gracie is a member of a Brazilian family with a formidable name in the jui jitsu world internationally.
She arrived in Devonport during Covid and began offering community-house classes that have developed a big following of kids and their parents.
“We have been really lucky to get such skilled people here,” says Dickinson. “Their networks and reputations have helped to build awareness of what we have here, and of course they’re bringing the community in.”
Music sessions for pre-schoolers are also a popular new initiative, says Dickinson, while digital sessions for seniors established last year have clicked with growing numbers of retirees.
Roller skating is another new offering that’s pulling strong numbers. “That has been so, so successful that I’m hoping we can add more skating days this year.”
For Dickinson, mother of Freda (7) and Una (4), this is a dream job for this time of her life.
The former Takapuna Grammar School student has a background in communications, marketing and events, here and overseas.
Before she married and had children, she nurtured her passion for music by hosting radio shows in community radio over about seven years and for a time on the popular George FM Auckland station.
Her focus was on New Zealand music and during those years in radio she met her musician husband Roddy Kirkcaldy.

“We have been really lucky to get such skilled people here.”

When the couple moved to Berlin for Kircaldy to further his career there, Dickinson looked to change her career, discovering a passion for not-for-profit organisations.
Having her first daughter in a foreign city and being unable to speak German, she found herself very dependent on a local family centre, where she was impressed by the warmth of the welcome and the extensive range of services and programmes available for families and mothers just like her.
“I was a foreigner there with a new baby and I was so warmly taken care of. Through the family centres there was just so much more on offer for people than there is here.”
The couple stayed on in Berlin for seven years, during which Dickinson unexpectedly found her own willingness to help others in hot demand. In the winter of 2015/2016, more than a million refugees from Syria streamed into Germany, fleeing war in their home country and having endured terrifying sea passages or long journeys on foot.
“It was the saddest thing I have ever seen,” says Dickinson. “But as I got closer to many of them I was struck by their incredible determination. They were determined to survive, they’d got to Germany and they were resourceful, clever people. They were very quick to help themselves just as soon as they could, finding work, getting their children to schools. It was pretty humbling to watch the way they would go about doing what they needed to do to start over with nothing in a new country. I met so many lovely people and could not help be impressed by them.”
Committed to helping the migrants in the freezing-cold winter, Dickinson started volunteering in a clothing supply room.
Her voluntary work continued for two years, trying to fill huge gaps in support. She helped supply food, clothing and found drivers to work with her, helping move support and supplies to wherever they were needed.
“Sometimes there were just thousands of people waiting. You couldn’t help but be touched by their spirit.”
In 2018, she returned to New Zealand, where Una was born. Attracted by the potential of the community house, right in her home town, Dickinson first took a job there in marketing and communications. She’s proud of progress that’s been made there.
The number of volunteers has swelled from just three at the end of 2022 to more than 20, giving her and her team a significant boost in resource.
Funding is an ongoing issue, but she’s hopeful more users will help generate more resources to work with.
Alongside her job, Dickinson is doing part-time study, some of it in the field of ‘UX’ – user experience.
As she works to identify more of what local people would like to do at the community house, she welcomes suggestions.
And she is very grateful for the recent generous donation that has fast-tracked plans for youth. “Obviously more of that would be wonderful.”
She is very open to putting new ideas into practice. “If something sounds viable we would be willing to trial it here and see if it’s what people want. This place is for the whole community.”

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