1 NEWS Community: Meet the kind-hearted Auckland artists keeping thousands warm with blankets this winter

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A pair of Auckland artists, who have given out more than 10,000 blankets to families sleeping rough over the past three winters, expect even more people will be in need this year.

Donna Turtle Sarten and Bernie Harfleet launched the community activated art project Give a Kid A Blanket in the winter of 2015.

Bernie Harfleet and Donna Turtle Sarten started Give a Kid a Blanket in 2015.
Source: 1 NEWS

"I guess it was a gut response to the Coroner talking about a little girl’s death being in-part because of the damp and cold housing conditions the family were in," Bernie Harfleet told 1 NEWS.

It's estimated that as many as 26,000 people are homeless in Auckland, including those in temporary accommodation with relatives or in unsuitable dwellings.

With help from the wider Auckland community they collected blankets and other warm items to deliver them to children and families through public health nurses, social workers and family support workers.

In that first winter 1273 blankets were given to kids in Auckland.

Twenty-six people supported the project by offering their businesses and homes as drop-off points.

Since then, Give a Kid a Blanket has grown immensely, in the years following the pair could no longer run the project from their home, instead using warehouse space to sort through all of the donated items.

A Givealittle fundraising page was set up by a supporter this year to help with additional costs of rent, fuel and extra things missing from orders.

Last year more than 8400 blankets were given out, and with what’s predicted to be an even harder winter, with many families facing the reality of cold night in cars, garages, sleep outs and damp cold housing, Bernie and Donna have many long days ahead.

It's just worth it just to know you can be part of a little bit of change"
Bernie Harfleet

This year there are 73 drop of points from Warkworth all the way down to Pokono, including several homes, businesses.

Public health nurses and social workers provide Bernie and Donna with basic information about clients they help, so packs made-up can fit what each family requires.

"That really helps, so you’re not a 17-year-old boy with a Dora blanket," said Mr Harfleet.

Sleeping arrangements are also a key piece of information given to the pair.

"That's really important because in that first year I think we gave out 1500 blankets and we found 5 kids had their own single bed.

"There's lots of people that bed share. We'll get lists where five kids from 2-17 will all have the same bed they share together. So that really helps us guide what people need.

"Sleeping bags for teenagers in that situation are quite good, they can go and find another space, or at least sort of have their own little space."

A lot of the pair's work is social, political art practice focusing on issues like child poverty, violence against women, war, anxiety and depression.

"One, for instance, was a big sculpture about kids that go to school hungry every day in New Zealand – about 83,000.

"That was a sculpture with 6000 lunchboxes. So that was the visual part, but the community activated part was that the lunchboxes were then filled and given to 6000 kids in low-decile schools across Auckland."

For Bernie and Donna the community becomes part of their art, and with Give a Kid a Blanket they document the kindness of others by sharing photographs to Facebook of those donating or volunteering their time to the cause.

"We don't photograph the people who receive the blankets, for us that can be quite victimising, and really all of us, all of our circumstances could change in an instant.

All of our circumstances could change in an instant. Things like Christchurch really shows that, where we're placed in a position where we have to accept some help."
Bernie Harfleet

"I think things like Christchurch really shows that. Where we're placed in a position where we have to accept some help with some dignity hopefully.

"We celebrate the health workers and the social workers that work with people. And particularly those that offer a small or large act of kindness that the project really multiplies into this action."

At the end of every two years there is then a printed photo exhibition, last year's was part of the Auckland Festival of Photography featuring 130 photos from the Give a Kid a Blanket Facebook page.

Every year Bernie and Donna receive messages from around the country from people wanting to set up a Give a Kid a Blanket in their own area.

"We've written a model, and usually the answer comes back, wow we didn't realise how much work it would be. And they are well intentioned but it doesn't happen."

But this year the pair are thrilled that there’s a Give a Kid a Blanket Rotorua and Give a Kid a Blanket – Rangiora who will both collect for two weeks this winter.

"That's great to feel people are taking it on, and making it happen in other areas."

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