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Local plants woman awarded Queen’s Order of Merit

The spritely 83-year-old Jo Dawkins says she was astonished to learn she had been nominated and awarded to be a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for her 27 years of voluntary service to horticulture and the Te Puna Quarry Park.

“It’s the sort of thing that happens to other people, not ordinary people like me,” Jo says humbly.

Jo’s award was announced in the 2020 Queen’s Birthday Honours and Her Excellency The Right Honourable Dame Patsy Reddy presented Jo with her award at the investiture in Wellington in November 2020.

“I’m not a social butterfly so don’t need lots of posh frocks but needed one for the ceremony to meet the Governor-General!”

Jo was nominated for her award by fellow volunteer Bev Cain with support from Tourism Bay of Plenty.

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Jo has lived in Tauranga since her birth in 1937 and is a remarkable testament to the good health a life spent outdoors awards the human spirit. Jo says that she has been a plants woman all her life, whether through volunteering at the park, growing plants in her and her husband’s nursey, or working as a florist on Devonport Road in Tauranga alongside her sister in the late 1950s.

“Spending time in nature is good for your soul,” says Jo.

Community-minded Jo says she has been volunteering in various forms all of her life – from committees, sports clubs, parent–teacher associations at her children’s schools to Plunket.

Following three years of legal negotiations to convert the quarry from mining rocks to growing plants, Jo and her fellow founding volunteer, Shirley Sparks, established the Te Puna Quarry Park in 1997. Jo says she doesn’t plan on quitting anytime soon.

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“I’m just an ordinary, old-fashioned person but I don’t mind working. I enjoy talking to people to find out where they’re from and their gardening interests.”

Currently 50 volunteers join Jo three days a week to maintain and improve the expansive gardens and beloved community space.

“I love listening to the birds. We have tūī, kereru, koera (quail), but we’d like to see more tīwaiwaka (fantails) in our seven hectares of native bush with the help of our pest-management programme.”

Some areas of the park are specific to a theme such as the rose garden and the butterfly garden, among many others. The park also has plans to evolve and develop more gardens and tracks, and install more sculptures, when funds allow. Jo is currently working in her favourite space, the South African garden, where she wants to add more proteas.

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Jo loves watching plants grow and flower, but most of all, seeing others enjoy nature. The park’s mission is to bring more people, and particularly children, into the natural environment.

“Bring your dogs and children, we’ve got plenty of things to keep the little ones entertained including interactive artwork and sculptures.”

“But there is one rule for children – you are not allowed to cry because the park is a happy place,” laughs Jo.

In order to establish the Te Puna Quarry Park, the classification of the land had to be changed to parks and reserves through the mining act. The Te Puna Quarry Park is now Crown land, vested in the Western Bay of Plenty District Council, and managed by the Te Puna Quarry Park Society Incorporated.

The glorious park is owed to hundreds of volunteer hours, visitor donations, and generous community and national sponsorships including TECT and Westpac.