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Set in the peaceful grounds of St John of God Hauora Trust rehabilitation hospital, Halswell Menzshed is a hive of activity six days a week. Co-ordinator Roger Spicer, a retired Baptist minister, may not have a background in the trades, but he is a master builder when it comes to creating community.

On a sunny Thursday afternoon, I drop by to chat with Roger. He opens with the astonishing fact that there are now more Menzsheds in Australia than McDonald’s restaurants. The Menzshed concept, which started over the ditch in the 1980s, has been equally well-received in New Zealand. There are currently 29 sheds in Canterbury alone.

 

‘Our target group is men in transition,’ says Roger. ‘They may have gone through a divorce, have health issues, be newly retired or have recently come out of prison. Whatever their situation, we try to connect them with the community. When men leave work, they often lose their contacts. Many retired men still have tremendous skills and they are more than happy to help those who are less practical.’

Although there are many sheds around Canterbury, men come across the city to attend Halswell, which is one of the largest. ‘It’s important to find a shed that works for you,’ Roger says. ‘That may or may not be your nearest.’

Roger shows me around the spacious green building, which originally belonged to the St John of God Hauora Trust. Since taking it over six years ago, the group has added two more workspaces. He points out the large covered area on the far side of the yard. ‘That’s a great spot for working on projects. We purchased two 40-foot containers and laid a concrete pad between them. Its semi-covered so, with the heaters on, the men can work out there even in the winter.’

On the Thursday I visit, some men are busy with personal projects, such as planter boxes, while others are helping with the community projects: refitting a mobile bike servicing trailer, fabricating a mobile spit-roast and fitting out a campervan.

The men vary in age from their mid-twenties, all the way through to an 84-year-old who ‘cycles down and sharpens the tools for us’, Roger says. The Menzshed philosophy is ‘People before projects’. ‘The guys may be hard at work, but we make sure at 10.30 am, or lunchtime, everyone stops for a chat. It’s essential for building community.’

I am introduced to Craig, a cheerful Aussie boilermaker, who sustained a head injury a while back, in an industrial accident. No longer able to hold down paid work, Craig volunteers at the shed six mornings a week. ‘He virtually lives down here,’ Roger jokes. ‘On Tuesdays and Thursdays Craig is the first one in; arriving by 8.15 to set up, even though the shed isn’t open to the public until nine o’clock.’

‘There’s not much to do around my place,’ Craig explains. ‘My partner’s out at work all day, so I enjoy coming down to help. It gives me a reason to get out of bed. I was doing a Bachelor of Engineering when I had my accident. I know how to organise the shed, and I’ve just been through and tidied and decluttered the workshops. Over the time I’ve been a member, I’ve done a couple of my own projects, and I enjoy helping others.’  He points across to a large cream trailer. ‘I helped a guy build that.’ We go over to inspect it. ‘We made this mobile spit-roast from scratch,’ he says proudly. ‘We’re going to rent it out as a fundraiser for the shed.’

Craig’s partner got him involved after she spotted a poster in her local library. Roger explains this is often the way men arrive. ‘Women tend to be the ones making the initial contact. They call me and say they have a grandfather, son or husband who’s depressed, or needs to get out more. I say, “Send him down.” However, I stress we aren’t a sitter service. If a man has any special needs, he’ll need to bring along a support person.’

For Craig, one of the attractions is chatting with other men who have had industrial accidents. ‘You get to talk. A couple of other guys also had head injuries; they understand what it’s like. We support each other.’

As we walk through the hut viewing the work, Roger explains what attracts people. ‘Men come in wanting to finish something they’ve started but maybe don’t know how to complete. They come along and learn new skills. We also have several residents from the hospital who drop in purely to watch.

‘Although the shed is not-for-profit, it has to pay its way. We’re moving towards a business model. We plan to rent out the spit-roast and campervan via our website. We do foundry work and plastic moulding as well as carpentry. One exciting project on the horizon is building a “tiny house” for the hospital.’ Roger’s eyes light up as he tells me more. ‘Occasionally, patients want to live with family members, but there’s no room for them. Having a relocatable “tiny house” would allow them independence. Once the legal side of things is approved, we plan to make a start.’

There’s a strong partnership between the St John of God Hauora Trust and the Halswell Menzshed. Although Menzshed is secular, Mark Anderson, Job Facilities Support manager of the hospital, tells me there is a good fit between the two organisations. ‘St John of God said “Do good for yourself by doing good for others”. Our values of respect and hospitality are perfectly aligned, which is why we work so well together.’

Mark is happy with the level of maintenance support from the men at the shed. ‘If the hospital requires repair work or a wheelchair needs fixing, volunteers make it a priority. One hospital resident dropped in for a chat and happened to mention she couldn’t tend her plants because she couldn’t bend down. A shed member rose to the challenge and made her some raised planter boxes.’

The shed receives donated materials. ‘We get given wood and, for a token amount, the men can purchase it,’ Roger says. ‘Often, it’s pallet wood or engine boxes from Pratt & Whitney Engineering. We generally hear about free materials on the grapevine or through our links with other Canterbury Menzsheds.’

Des Thomson is, according to Roger, ‘the brains of the operation’. A retired engineer, Des is the go-to man if anyone has technical questions. He reminds me of a nail; long, slim, with a silver top. He’s been a member for around five years, supervises three mornings a week, and is on the steering group along with Roger and Mark. There’s an easy comradery between the three men. Des ribs Roger for being in so many of my photographs, saying, ‘Look out. Roger’s attention-seeking again.’

For the last two years, men from the Halswell shed have taken a trip to Twizel to help with the canal clean-up. ‘The travel time down and back allows plenty of opportunities for deepening friendships,’ Roger explains. ‘The event has lots of prizes, and they put on a free lunch. After the clean-up, which is only a few hours’ work, the cyclists go cycling, the walkers go out tramping, and some of us do a spot of fishing. We stay overnight and enjoy each other’s company.’

On my way out, I talk to Graeme who lives in a unit on the hospital grounds. He’s been disabled ever since he had a motorbike accident soon after leaving school. A keen member of the shed, his face brightens when I ask why he joined. ‘It’s good to watch what’s going on and be around other men. There’s always something happening down here.’ When I ask to take his photograph, Graeme nips back to his unit to get his official branded beanie. While I snap away, Roger jokes with him.

It’s clear to me that men of all ages and abilities are welcome at the Halswell Menzshed. The bonds created aren’t just the product of hammers and nails, but of respect, acceptance, and a shared sense of purpose.
To find a MenzShed near you visit menzshed.org.nz

Words & Images Sue Kingham

In Detail:Ashburton Menzshed

Like its contemporaries, the Ashburton Menzshed has become a growing cornerstone of the local community. We talk to them to find out a little bit more.

When did it start? 

Christmas 2013 at the old Allenton Nurseries site on Alford Forest Road. We then moved into new premises (once renovated by the Men themselves) on William Street in October 2017.

Why did it start?

To create a place for men to enjoy each other’s company, share their skills, have a laugh and work on a particular task individually or as a group.

What do you love doing? 

We particularly enjoy helping community groups with small projects. For example, we have just recently completed a mud oven for a local play school. Once a month the male members of the local Dementia Group also attend and enjoy working alongside members – it is very therapeutic. We have a great association with the Chris Ruth Centre, who come in once a week with their members, and a support person, to undertake different tasks.

What does the future look like for Ashburton Menzshed? 

Very good; membership is currently sitting at 67 and growing daily. Membership includes young and old, all cultures and ethnicities, skilled tradesmen, farming, business owners, labourers and so forth. The shed is a great place to learn new skills and pass on their own skills to others.

For more information, visit menzshed.org.nz.