In our first edition of Passion N Place we catch-up with Emma Sherie, co-founder of CommuniTea and our fantastic Buller District Library Manager. We talk with Emma about her background and journey, her passions, the founding of CommuniTea and the change she would like to see in the world around her. As Emma states:
“Embrace whatever your passion is, you just never know what it might start”
Emma was brought up in a hospitality family and says that she was brought up by ‘gypsies’, moving from place to place around New Zealand from Wanaka to National Park (NI), Te Anau and Queenstown.
She spent the first part of her secondary school years in Te Anau in a small rural school before going onto Whakatipu High School in Queenstown which she explained as being the polar opposite experience from Te Anau. As she explained the drinking age had just been reduced to 18 and kids embraced the Queenstown party culture.
Her father had always had to work Christmas well she was growing up so she adopted a rule that she’d never take on a job that involved working Christmas holidays. Emma decided that she’d either become a nurse or a teacher, however becoming a nurse involved working Christmas holidays. So she ruled that one out and went on to teachers college in Dunedin.
Well at teachers college she was given a virtual tour of a school in South Auckland which instantly grabbed Emma’s heart. She was compelled to work at the school and followed the Education Gazette religiously hoping something would become available. 6 months later a job became available at the school she’d been following and was lucky enough to get an interview.
A bittersweet stroke, considering as soon as she received the phone call to say that she’d got the job, it was unfortunately immediately followed by a phone call from her mum Chris to explain that her father was in the midst of passing away. After spending time with her family and getting to see her Dad during his last days Emma moved up to South Auckland to take on the job. A difficult decision at the time given the recent passing of her Dad and having to leave her mum in Dunedin.
Emma reflects on her Dad as being a really special guy and her family would say that he had the ‘Phil Lark spark’, a spark that she thinks she’s been lucky enough to inherit. Phil was a really funny guy which is why he was so good at hospitality and could talk with everyone.
The move to Auckland and into her first teaching job helped heal Emma’s heart given it was a really difficult decision having to leave her mum behind, but provided the distraction she needed. As she explains “Those children were just so beautiful and you would look at them each day and they would have such huge smiles on their faces”.
The school was a low decile school and while families had little money in their bank accounts, they had so much more in terms of community spirit, hospitality, and talents. She was lucky to be guided by a really good principle and the school focused on breaking the poverty cycle and exposing kids to live beyond their culdesac.
While there she met her partner Greg Sherie who was working as a policeman in South Auckland. Soon after Emma decided to go back down to Dunedin during the Christmas holidays. She packed up her flat and asked to leave her stuff in a spare room at Greg’s. Greg often jokes about the fact she’d said she would find a new place when she got back, however upon returning decided to stay put and hasn’t moved on since.
Eventually, Greg started feeling burnt out by the demands of being a police officer in South Auckland and decided it was time to move on. A job opportunity emerged in Westport, a big change for Emma as having been there previously during a heavy period of rain she swore she could never live here. They traveled down for a weekend to scope it out and while it was raining yet again, they decided to take a leap of faith and give it ago.
That was during the mining boom around 2009, when housing was in short supply. Emma ended up getting an offer to take up a position at Westport North School teaching Year 8 students. Having explained to the principal the trouble they were having finding a house, he made some phone calls and within the day he’d helped find them a house. Having moved back at a similar time we reflected on the mining boom and how different the community was at that stage.
Greg and Emma decided to build a house here in Westport, however, after a period of time, Emma found herself burning out from teaching and decided to take time off while working part-time as a reliever. Not to long after finishing their house Greg took up an opportunity to take on a sole charge position in Granity. Initially, this proved challenging and Emma explained how difficult it was to integrate into a small community being the policeman’s wife.
Feeling isolated, Emma took up her passion for baking, something that was new for her, despite the fact her Dad had been a chef she hadn’t spent a lot of time cooking until then. This was a healing experience and Emma started exploring the development of a new business start-up called ‘Swapsies’.
She’d been talking with fellow teacher friends about how difficult it was finding accommodation during the school holidays and they set up a facebook platform to help teachers swap houses. With no-one utilising the platform she went through a period of trying to work out what would make people feel safe in swapping a house. She started up a basic website and had 20 members join the platform on the first day.
Her experience of developing ‘Swapsies’ connected Emma with CO.STARTERS and EPIC Westport. While doing her post-grad in ‘E-learning’ she became heavily involved in supporting the community at EPIC Westport, exposing her to business and entrepreneurship. This led to working part-time for Vertigo Technologies where she assisted with marketing, writing user documentation and proposals. She’d never thought that she’d find herself in a world of selling CNC machines but loved the experience of being involved in a scrappy little start-up.
During 2018, Emma decided to attend a workshop with Peter Kenyon on facilitating community-led initiatives, who talked about igniting people in building their communities based on what they’re passionate about. Emma started exploring what she was passionate about, went home and sent out a post on Facebook:
“Hi I’m Emma, many of you will know me as the policeman’s wife. I’m really passionate about baking, coffee, and good conversation. If anyone else is passionate about these things then come to my house on Friday and we can discuss setting up a pop-up community cafe”.
Emma received an incredible response and by that Friday a dozen people came and gathered in Emma’s lounge. Emma’s exposure to modern business start-up methodologies had taught her about Minimum Viable Products (MVP) and the group decided their MVP would be a pop-up cafe once a week.
With no money, they got some initial support from Buller REAP, Kawatiri Coffee and borrowed $50 from the local church while scrounging cutlery and crockery from around the community. Having secured their first venue the first CommuniTea event was held two weeks later and after some nerves, over 30 people showed up to enjoy quality baking, coffee, and conversations.
CommuniTea is all about providing a place that connects people, as Emma states “When we are connected socially, we are going to be better mental health-wise” and while they try to make it interesting for people it is ultimately about being able to connect their community who may not be able to afford to go to a cafe.
CommuniTea is built upon the passions of community volunteers, who come together every week to bake goods, help with marketing and hosting CommuniTea. Over 50-100 people turn up every week, paying a gold coin donation for the treats on offer while enjoying local musicians, theatre performances and special events. Even with operating on a koha basis, CommuniTea has been so popular that they generate a profit which is then given to assist local community organisations and positive causes.
They’ve moved up in the world to the local Fire Station and well they’ve felt the pressure to grow in the past, there are no plans to try and make CommuniTea bigger than what it already is. Emma explains that it takes a lot to bring CommuniTea together each week as it is and why change something that works.
CommuniTea has proven to be an asset for Granity, attracting visitors on a weekly basis with the OpShop and local pub reporting an increase in business since it started, while providing a space that connects elderly and young alike.
While Emma felt isolated in her community when she first started CommuniTea, she states that “It’s healed my heart, I love my community now”. Passionate about sharing her experiences and empowering others she says “Embrace whatever your passion is, you just never know what it might start”.
Emma will be traveling to Canberra, Australia in August to share the story of CommuniTea at a national community development conference called ‘Power to the People’.
Emma’s keen to empower others to live their passions and shares her advice for others considering following their dreams:
“Find like-minded people, don’t let the dream catchers get you down, the number of people that said to me its just coffee and cake, that’s not going to work, take a little risk, step out and do whatever you can do”
CommuniTea is held every Friday at the Granity Fire Station from 10 am – 12:30 pm, if you haven’t been pop out for a visit – it’s a real treat of good baking, coffee, and conversations.