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Drivers get new lease on life

Rangitaara Wana, who just got her learner’s, with tutor Darren Poona. PHOTO/ERIN KAVANAGH-HALL


Erin Kavanagh-Hall

On behalf of Wairarapa REAP

Rangitaara Wana is putting her illegal driving days behind her.

The 24-year-old was one of the graduates of Wairarapa REAP’s recent driver licensing training courses, held in February and March – proudly emerging with a brand new Learner Licence.

Rangitaara has, in fact, been driving for several years, having taught herself from observing friends and family. Despite having learned the road rules by first-hand exposure, she had resisted getting her learner’s, lacking the confidence to sit the written test.

“I just kept putting it off,” she said.

“Sitting the test was a big step for me – but when I went to do it, I found the questions were mostly just common sense. You just need to use your brain cells.

“I’m so proud of myself for going for it.”

Rangitaara is one of the 1000-odd students Darren Poona, one of the tutors of REAP’s driving courses, has taught over the past six years.

Darren tutors the Learner License course which helps students come to grips with the NZ Road Code in a gentle, non-threatening environment before taking the written exam.

It is targeted mostly at young people who have been driving without the correct documentation.

Many in Darren’s classes, he said, have avoided sitting their learner’s thanks to previous negative experiences of education and taking tests, and a lack of self-belief.

So it’s not unusual for him to see his students not only gain a licence, but take steps to overcome their learning disabilities, go on to new careers, or find a new lease on life following a difficult past.

“Our courses are the last chance hotel – some of our students have failed their learner’s about six or seven times, and have just about given up,” Darren said.

“A lot of people who come to us have bad memories of the school system, and almost have a phobia of anything academic.

“We’re here to give them that exposure to academic thinking.

“It’s awesome to see them build up that confidence, and realise what they’re capable of.”

Darren knows what it’s like to struggle on the road.

Originally from Auckland, he settled in Masterton as he hoped the quieter country life would help him break some bad habits.

“I was your typical aggressive Auckland driver,” he said.

“I thought, ‘man, if I want to drive better, I’ve got to get out of here.’”

He arrived in Wairarapa in the early 2000s, at a time when road deaths in the region were high, especially among Maori.

He eventually worked with the former Wairarapa Whanui Incorporated, teaching driving courses in an attempt to “turn the numbers around”.

He began working at REAP in 2012, where he also teaches computer literacy.

Though REAP’s courses mostly target the 16 to 25 age group, Darren said “a whole range of people” usually ended up enrolling.

The oldest person he has taught was approaching 70 – who, despite never having held a driver’s license, had managed “60 years on the road without getting a ticket”.

“He was listening to a talk at the marae about taking responsibility – which got him thinking, ‘oh, I’d better get my licence’.”

“His grandson has said he wants to do the course as well.

“I think there are a lot of young people out there who don’t put a priority on the responsibility of getting a driver’s licence.

“Their parents may not have had a good relationship with the cops, so they have no fear of being caught.

“If we get an older person come in, we’ll often ask, ‘what are your moko doing?’ So, they can get their licence, and get on the right path.”

At the Learner Licence course, Darren introduces the students to the Road Code, teaching them techniques for digesting information, critical thinking, and committing facts to memory.

Students then go over online practice tests, before sitting the final exam, with tutors coming along for moral support.

Darren has worked with several people with learning disabilities or neurological conditions, such as dyslexia or autism.

Some have even had limited reading skills who have been able to pass their test, thanks to some extra time and attention.

“Those people I found were some of the most intelligent, as they had to find their own ways of getting by,” Darren said.

He has teamed up worked with Literacy Wairarapa to help some of his students.

Also needing some extra focus are students on a “pink licence” – drivers who have been suspended or disqualified from driving, and needing to start the process from scratch.

“It’s about helping them break the cycle.

“It’s important we work with our students until they get it. It’s not always easy – but listening and being patient goes a long way.

“For a lot of these guys, a licence is their first step towards independence.”

Darren has seen some real success stories with students, thanks to their newfound confidence, achieving some major milestones.

One woman in particular found doing the course helped her conquer a fear of filling out forms, leading her to finally getting approved for a mortgage.

“Once she’d done her test and got her licence, she thought ‘how hard can this be?’

“She’s now got a home of her own, and is training to be a counsellor.”

For another student, getting her learner’s was a key step in overcoming her traumatic past.

“She’d been abused by family members. She was so traumatised, she’d be shaking in class.

“But when she got her licence, she had a huge smile on her face. She said, ‘they told me I’d never achieve anything – I just proved them wrong.’”

Rangitaara now plans on getting her restricted licence, so she can drive to her job in Lower Hutt and save money on train fares.

“I’m so excited for what’s next,” she said.


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Emily Ireland
Emily Ireland
Emily Ireland is Wairarapa’s Local Democracy Reporter, a Public Interest Journalism role funded through NZ On Air. Emily has worked at the Wairarapa Times-Age for seven years and has a keen interest in council decision-making and transparency.

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