Growing Mighty Kids - catching up with Paul from OKE

OKE provides kiwi kids the opportunity to learn life skills and social skills by introducing productive gardens into schools. Step Changers’ Kate Campbell caught up with founder and chief go-getter Paul Dickson to talk about what OKE needs to help its garden grow.


What is OKE?

OKE is Māori for the oak tree. The tag line Growing Mighty Kids refers to the old saying “from acorns mighty oaks grow”.

OKE builds “outdoor classrooms” that offers local school kids the opportunity to learn through gardening. We facilitate Working Bees (which pull together school communities – parents, teachers and neighbourhoods) to build the OC’s. They then become part of the larger network of schools building a new way of learning in South Auckland.

Why did you decide to start this charity?

I saw a gap between schools understanding the need for a school garden and having the time and resources to make it happen. I had just turned my back on a corporate career but wanted to utilise my project management background: what better way to do this than helping schools get growing?

Was gardening a big part of your life growing up?

I grew up in a council flat on a pretty rundown council estate. There wasn’t much opportunity for my family and I to garden at home. However, my granddad was a keen gardener and had his own allotment. In fact, he was chairman of the Birmingham Gardening Association. I think he is where I get my green fingers from.


Check out OKE in action at Manurewa Central School.

What support have you had on your journey from other organisations?

It’s been quite the lonesome journey until quite recently. In fact, very recently. In mid-November I had a meeting with the Counties Manukau District Health Board (CMDHB), who are trying to implement a food waste project. As part of this project, they are supporting the build of a community garden at Manurewa High School. In the meeting were representatives from Fisher & Paykel, KiwiRail, Fonterra, HungryBin, Downer and Bauer, who CMDHB are trying to gain corporate support from. Fisher & Paykel in particular have been partnering with CMDHB for over 20 years, and are keen to back the project, as they have already implemented some amazing sustainability projects of their own. This is just the beginning of what could be a solid partnership and their support would make even more projects possible in future.

How can Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) policies help?

CSR is very important… it just needs to be taken seriously. I think there is a lot of greenwashing and sustainable tick-in-the-boxes. I would love to have OKE partner with CSR teams, ideally with the building of the gardens. This year we built a garden at Reremoana Primary School, it was not only fully funded by Mercury ($10,000) but fully built with the help of their volunteers. A perfect example of how genuine, committed CSR can make a big difference.

What keeps you motivated?

Easy, the kids. This charity game is the hardest job I’ve had and I grew up in the automotive industry in the 90’s. If it wasn’t for the impact I’ve seen the gardens having on the kids, I fear I would have slipped back into the corporate gig a long time ago.

What has been your biggest challenge to date? How did you overcome it?

The biggest challenge is our family living on one income (my wife’s), whilst I try and make OKE sustainable. The next biggest challenge has been convincing school principals, who are often of retirement age, that implementing OC’s is a great and important way to teach. Now that we have built seven school gardens, we have proof of their success and have the backing from those teachers and principals.

What positive changes have you witnessed since the conception of OKE?

The first garden we built was at Papatoetoe West School. Diana Tregoweth, the principal, has used the garden as a hub to transform the school in an environmentally conscious way. For this the school received the EnviroSchools Silver award last month. That has been a three year journey, one that OKE has been on the whole way.

Bairds Mainfreight Primary School in Otara has also made great progress. They have recently started giving the produce grown in their OKE garden to the local food hub.

Your motto is “Growing a Future,” but where do you see OKE’s future growing?

There are 120 primary schools in South Auckland from Mangere to Pukekohe, and we would like to reach those at intermediates and high schools too. There is plenty of work to be done to create “growth pathways” from school starters to school leavers.

OKE has also recently developed an augmented reality App that will enhance the learning’s and experiences the kids have in the gardens. We already have a couple schools testing a prototype and it would be great to make it part of the curriculum. The potential it could have on learning is vast.

What do you wish you knew when you started out?

Everything takes a lot longer when you’re doing it on your own. When I was a project manager in my twenty-year career, I was pretty much always part of larger project teams. OKE has been somewhat a one-man crusade, duly supported by my partner in crime/wife. So that support is paramount.

Do you have any advice for companies looking to be more socially responsible?

It doesn’t have to be hard, just be passionate about what you’re backing. Volunteers are great but for them to make a real difference, funds for the projects they’ll be working on will support a greater impact!

What does your charity need to grow?

People. Money. Skills. Yep, that’ll do.

If you have some money, people or skills you’d like to put towards a good cause, check out OKE’s website to see how you could help. Or get in touch with Step Changers to find out about more great causes in need of your support, with a corporate social policy tailored for your business’s needs.

InterviewsBruno Shirley