As the nation shuts down in its effort to squash Covid-19, some Kiwis are sticking together through compassion and kindness. In these vignettes of life under lockdown, our reporters found communities coming together, strangers becoming friends, and hope for the future.

Food for thought and love

Jenny Rhodes knows all about community support, it is what has kept her business open in the small Waikato town of Putaruru for five years. 

Rhodes owns the Wooden Farmer restaurant, with her dad Fred Seidel and husband Matt. She was told it wouldn't survive. But those people didn't understand the loyalty of Putaruru.

Jenny Rhodes owns the Wooden Farmer restaurant in Putaruru.

Jenny Rhodes owns the Wooden Farmer restaurant in Putaruru.

So when Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern made the announcement that the country would shut down - which would result in a four-week closure of her business - Rhodes knew exactly what she would do with the excess food.

She gave it away - for free.

"I didn't even think twice about it," she said.

It's the right thing to do, my town has supported me and my business. It was the least I could do.

Jenny Rhodes

And so Rhodes made a few calls on Monday morning and within hours Putaruru locals turned up to the restaurant on State Highway 1 and were given sweet treats, cupboard staples and words of love.

"When I heard the news, I sat there and cried at work for about 20 minutes then I pulled myself together," she said.

"Then I thought 'holy s... we have a whole heap of food' and I just said, 'We need to get the town to come to pick it up'. We have a lot of families that are struggling right now and they can't buy a whole lot of groceries for their kids, so I put the message out and they came."

Putaruru is feeling the economic wrath of the virus, with many families working in the forestry sector and the mill being laid off.

Rhodes said her employees also showed up to help hand out food, despite not being rostered on.

It's this community, this is how we work in times of crisis. We work together, for each other.

Jenny Rhodes

"We get a huge amount of support here in town. I was giving back to the people who have given to me. Like I said, it was the least we could do."

Isolated, but not abandoned

She’s an elderly widow who fears loneliness and depression. The offers of help came flooding in.

Ros Booker was alone. She posted a message into the void.

“I am feeling isolated and abandoned,” she wrote on social networking website Neighbourly. 

Ros Booker, 79, lives alone and fears depression during the lockdown.

Ros Booker, 79, lives alone and fears depression during the lockdown.

The 79-year-old moved into a new apartment in Linwood, Christchurch, about two months ago. 

She lives alone, with regular visits from a home-helper. Every week, she has several community lunches, which act as her primary means of social contact. She goes to exercise classes and keeps up with friends.

With a lock-down imminent, it was all about to disappear.

“All these things have been wiped out from under my feet,” she says.

I rely on all of those - they're the tools I use to overcome chronic pain and keep depression at bay. I'm in a position where I'm running scared.

Ros Booker

At night, pain flares through her hands and fingers, meaning she struggles to cook. She still drives, but only feels comfortable on the routes she knows well, of which there aren’t many in her new neighbourhood. A visit to the supermarket was unsuccessful; the things she needed were all gone. 

So earlier this week, she decided to reach out, unsure if anyone would hear her. 

Tina Ngataierua reached out to help Ros Booker.

Tina Ngataierua reached out to help Ros Booker.

Tina Ngataierua is an optimist.

In a former life, she was a community health worker, and spent time working in a rest home. She treasures older people.

“It's just the way I was brought up,” she says. “Your elders are really special, and I feel that's kind of been lost in this young persons' world.”

When she saw Booker’s post, she was worried. How many others were in that situation?

They started talking. It’s only been a couple of days, but they’ve struck up a friendship; They have texted back and forth and spoken over the phone.

Ngataierua plans to drop off meals to Booker, and speak to her regularly.

She’s in an uncertain situation herself: Her family lost their main source of income recently. 

Tina Ngataierua's vege garden, which she spontaneously planted two months ago.

Tina Ngataierua's vege garden, which she spontaneously planted two months ago.

Two months ago, she felt an inexplicable need to start a vege garden. She bought sickly plants on special, which have produced a plentitude of food she wants to share.

She did not want Christchurch to continue living with uncertainty.

We don't have to have fear, we can still have company on either side of the windows, and we can still drop stuff on in the neutral island of the letterbox or the doorway.

Tina Ngataierua

“Let's just not forget we can still reach out.”

After her request for help, Ros Booker was flooded with phone numbers she can use if she needs help or company. People have offered to drop off food, talk to her through the window, or just chat on the phone.

“Those connections are really important. I've had strangers connecting through to me and I think that alone is huge, just having someone there,” she says.

She’ll be alright this week, she says - what happens over the next few weeks is anyone’s guess. 

As she prepares for lockdown, she worries about other people in her situation, who don’t feel comfortable asking for help. She wants to pass on the contact details of those who have offered to help her. 

For now, she speaks to Tina Ngataierua every day.

“I had Tina ring me just before - she has been a wonderful, lovely, caring person,” Booker says.

“She's a wee treasure, we need more people like her.”

Three days after Booker’s first post, she provided an update, with a picture. 

In her picture, she is smiling, holding a bouquet of flowers: “Every day above ground is a blessing,” she wrote. 

Here is a bouquet for you all.

Ros Booker

“The best school in New Zealand”

The video started it off really: within half an hour of it being uploaded, it had amassed 30,000 views. It showed a group of burly men piling food on trestle tables, and another bloke bursting through some doors with a broad grin saying: "Come along whanau, and get some food for your family". 

He's Iain Taylor, principal of Auckland’s Manurewa Intermediate School, and the video was to alert the local community the school had lots of free food to give away before lockdown commenced.

Behind the camera was Thomas Bartlett, deputy principal for pastoral care (naughty kids, he says, but you'd be surprised at how few they are) and e-learning, and the big chaps were the school's teaching assistants. "The best learning assistants in the world; they're next level," says Bartlett.

The post went up at 9.30am. They were thinking then what they might do with whatever was leftover. But by the time they began handing out food at 10am, the queue was out of the school gates. Bartlett estimated they dispensed food to 500 families, and had to turn more away when they ran out a little after 10.30am. 

As a decile one school, they run a breakfast club for over 400 of their 850 students, and give out a piece of fruit to all of them at lunchtime - so they had a week's supply of food from the Kidscan and Kickstart charities, plus the leftovers from their recent whole-school camp on Motatapu Island.

Manurewa Intermediate School gave away excess food to the community.

Manurewa Intermediate School gave away excess food to the community.

That added up to a mound of Weetbix boxes, about 4000 pieces of fruit, over 1000 loaves of bread, packs of butter chicken meals and a "crazy amount of milk".

"We just wanted to do something good for our families and whanau," said Bartlett, who admits worrying about how some of his students will fare in the four-week absence from school. "The fear is they might not get fed at home properly. There are a lot of awesome families out there, but there are always a few who would rather spend their money on other things.

It's going to be real hard out here if the virus strikes: there is a lot of elderly people, 10 or 12 people in small homes and it would spread.

Thomas Bartlett

Bartlett is bursting with pride for his school. "We work our arses off: we are here at 6am and we leave at 8pm," he says, but it is all worth it. They have a 93 per cent attendance record, and offer everything for free - sports, trips and stationery - bar the uniform They are decile one, "but if you come to our school, it looks like the best in New Zealand. It's got awesome facilities - we won best school in New Zealand in 2017."

His staff have already posted lessons online for the lockdown, and were back on Wednesday handing out work packs to those who didn't have online access at home (the school provides enough laptops for one each inside the classroom). While his kids are away, Bartlett hopes the pernicious influence of Instagram isn't too heavy: "most of the issues we have at school," he says, with weary humour, "start with people saying stuff on Instagram."

Holding on to the familiar

During the very unfamiliar lockdown it is the familiar that people will miss. The constant chatter inside a favourite cafe. The snip snip of scissors belonging to a long serving hairdresser. The smell of sweaty camaraderie in a gym, like Auckland’s Habitat for Fitness.

“We’re like the non-judgmental friend, not too involved in your life but there is an ear to listen and a shoulder to lean on,” said gym owner Amanda Chan-Borrell.

Instead of focusing on their own business worries after the lockdown announcement, Chan-Borrell and business partner husband PJ decided to focus on their 20 staff and 700 customers.

Amanda Chan-Borrell owns Auckland gym Habitat for Fitness.

Amanda Chan-Borrell owns Auckland gym Habitat for Fitness.

Between Monday to Wednesday, they shut down their two city gyms and froze all membership fees, averaging $30 a week per customer, until reopening. Some members wrote and said, no, they wanted to keep paying. But the couple refused.

They set up a compassionate membership for customers to use later, if they lose their income during the lockdown. A handful have already taken up the offer.

“Some members are really not coping. They came to us for support. I feel like it’s paying it forward to do this for people during this time.”

When the pair learned their frantic customers couldn’t buy gym equipment to use at home because sports stores had sold out, they hired out all of their own gear for $2-5 a week.

It looks like it’s been looted.

Amanda Chan-Borrell

Everything from spin bikes, to kettlebells, power bags, dumb bells and benches were taken. 

“Anything they could fit in their car really.”

An online portal was set up. Twenty videos were created by the coaches in the gym for members to use for free. When the mix of fun and serious videos are released, it’s open to the public for 24 hours to use for free too. Virtual coffee dates have been set up for staff and members.

“We’ve helped people through lots of really traumatic or difficult times before. We know how important fitness is for them,” said Chan-Borrell.

“We’ve seen it really help people get out of a rut they might be in. We’re the extra support network. They might not have close family or friends to talk to.”

Chan-Borrell describes herself as a serial optimist. She cried just once. When saying goodbye to a staff member. All staff will continue to be paid despite the business not receiving any income.

She’s not comfortable about their gym being singled out. The fitness community, as a whole she said, is working to help customers.

“It’s not innovative to have fitness videos online. We just want to be able to give back to our community. So, to have a safe place, familiar people and familiar faces around to help get them through a tricky time.”

Like many small businesses in the country, it’s going to be hard, she said. The couple, with two children and their grandmother at home, don’t know how long they’ll stay closed or what will happen after the lockdown ends.

We are going to be extremely hard hit. Just like every business we’re just trying to do what we can for our customers.

Amanda Chan-Borrell

Chan-Borrell said keeping lines of communication open is the key.

“I’ve been staying up until two in the morning making sure I’m keeping in touch, making sure I reply to everyone’s emails and social media messages.

“I just want people to know, each one of them is important and they are heard and cared about by someone.”

Everybody needs good neighbours

Not even a police-enforced lockdown can keep a group of Kiwi men from sharing evening beers.

In Temple Avenue, Lincoln, a group of neigbours have been getting together for ‘Driveway Drinks’ at 5pm each evening.

It started with a casual chat over the fence between neighbours Brad Tindall and Mike Kidd.

Lachlan, Beth, Corin and Brad Tindall.

Lachlan, Beth, Corin and Brad Tindall.

Tindall, 38, a Kiwirail protection officer, and wife Beth, a systems manager, are home all day with their boys Lachlan, nine, and Corin, five.

“They were talking about how they are going to survive this, not going to the pub,” Tindall, 45, said. “Boys being boys, will find a way of having a drink somehow. So they all decided to meet at 5pm.”

The drinks are a way to blow off steam - but have also bonded the street’s residents. 

“We don’t know all our neighbours, but messages went around and they all got their deckchairs and out they went,” she said.

They sit about 10 metres apart from each other. It’s typical Kiwi ingenuity.

Beth Tindall

“People are very stressed at the moment. I think it’s important for men and their mental health - they aren’t always good about talking about these things.”

Their neighbour Andrew Mercer is a pilot who had been in isolation for two weeks before the lockdown began.

“He saw them all doing it and came out as well. He’d had two weeks at home already the poor soul.”

Some of Tindall’s neighbours are pregnant, so the street’s female residents are planning their own ‘coffee mornings.’

Neighbours on Temple Avenue sitting apart for 5pm drinks.

Neighbours on Temple Avenue sitting apart for 5pm drinks.

Tindall put a photograph on a community Facebook page and the idea has taken off. “I was waiting for the trolls to come out but everyone has been: ‘that’s awesome.’ 

“People walking past, doing their daily walk, have walked in the middle of the road to keep a distance but have said: ‘good on, you, we’re going to do this,’

“And I’ve seen lots of comments from people on Facebook, saying they are going to do the same.”

Small business, big heart

In Cambridge, Dom Grant’s business Waikato Heat pumps was facing four weeks’ closure but he wanted to do more for his community. 

Grant and his parents moved to Cambridge 15 years ago from Scotland. The community welcomed them in and he and his family have stayed ever since.

When the crisis unfolded Grant knew he wanted to give back, so he called the local Neighbourhood Support and volunteered to collect and transport supplies to the elderly and those in self-isolation.

Dom Grant owns a heat pump business in Waikato.

Dom Grant owns a heat pump business in Waikato.

He will also give free heat pumps checks for the elderly. Grant said they get a lot of calls at this time of the year from the elderly and the problem is mainly heat pump settings.  

"I know what it was like starting a small business and the struggle that we went through and I appreciate all the support that we had from Cambridge over the years," he says.

And it just feels natural to want to help out. It seems like everyone should want to do that in the community. We should all want to help out in times like this.

Dom Grant

Grant said the response to his call of action has been welcomed by those in the community, of which a lot are elderly. He asks Kiwis to pay it forward in these unsettling times. 

"Get in touch with someone, like these neighbourhood community pages and find out what they can do," Grant said. 

"Everyone's got a different level of ability to help out. But these people that are running these groups have got a pretty good idea of what they need. It's not necessarily going out and picking up groceries but giving someone a call and making sure they're okay."

Time off, so time to help

Journalists love real estate agents - they're the one profession we can consistently rely on to rate below us on those awful surveys about public confidence in certain jobs. 

"Yeah, nestled between politicians," says Travers Smyth, who sells houses in the Auckland harbourside enclave of Birkenhead Point.

"No one wants to hear from us right now - selling your house is the last thing on your mind," he admits. 

So instead of sending out his usual weekly promotional email with sales figures and new listings, Smyth instead sent one out offering to help: picking up groceries, prescriptions, collecting mail or just a friendly phone call.

Travers Smyth is a real estate agent in Birkenhead.

Travers Smyth is a real estate agent in Birkenhead.

If you still think he doesn't sound genuine, he followed it up with a leaflet drop, then a phone around some of the older people on his database of potential clients.

There were a few, specifically, he was worried might really need some help - but actually the exercise has reaffirmed his belief in the local community. He's received some good stories in return: the residents who set up a WhatsApp group for mutual assistance, the nurse who did a similar leaflet drop offering medical help. 

And he's had about 10 'good on you' replies, and one client offering free eggs to anyone who needs them - but so far, no takers for his services. "It's a pretty good tight knit community, so it's almost that I am not needed, but I wanted to put it out there, I know a lot of people in the area and I thought if there was any way I could help, I was really happy to," he says.

Like many occupations, he doesn't have much work on - a couple of houses due to settle and some paperwork - about a week's worth of work all up. He's delayed all his potential new listings. 

So actually, he really does have some time (apart from looking after two children under three) to help, if anyone needs him. "Bang on - I am more than happy to help." 

As he says that, he thinks of one reclusive couple who his initial communications may have missed - he's off to call them now.

Words: Florence Kerr, Steve Kilgallon, Charlie Mitchell, Carmen Parahi, Andrea Vance

Design & layout: Aaron Wood