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Whaikaha's New Innovative Learning Space at Unitec

  • Whaikaha
    APM Dave Hicks welcomes guest

The Whaikaha/Supported Learning team threw open the doors to their brand-new, purpose-built learning facility during an Open Day celebration at Te Puna, welcoming friends and whānau. It’s been a long journey for the team, as they navigated their growth and evolution across the Mt Albert campus over the years.


At the event, Academic Programme Manager Dave Hicks shared some thoughts and memories, noting that the new facility mirrors the improving recognition and acceptance of neurodiversity.

After years of making do in adapted spaces, the team is thrilled with a building designed specifically for the unique needs of neurodiverse ākonga, complete with thoughtful touches like calming interior design, LED lighting (goodbye fluorescent!), and a welcoming social area, he says.

“I spoke to various organisations, including Ara, WITT, Wel-Tec and SIT, and although they have programmes for Supported Learners, they do not have a bespoke space built for them. As far as I know, this educational facility (as opposed to a health facility) is the only one of its kind at a Tertiary Level,” says Hicks.

Whaikaha has called the Mt Albert campus home since 1989, thanks to founder Larraine Hand. Starting from a modest portable building near Te Puna with five ākonga, the program has grown significantly, encompassing several portable buildings and delivering a range of programmes including the the New Zealand Certificate in Skills for Living and Working, to more than 80 ākonga annually.

"We've spent many years waiting, hoping, and advocating for a space that is accessible, inclusive, and up-to-date. And now, it's here, and it's everything we've hoped for," said Dr Katie Bruffy, Head of School for Bridgepoint and Supported Learning.

"Being part of the Unitec whānau for nearly 14 years, I've always been deeply proud of our Whaikaha programmes and Unitec's dedication to disability and inclusion. With Unitec’s investment and the vision and advocacy from many of our supporters, it’s a joy to celebrate this incredible new space that will surely enrich the lives of our students and our community."

The program boasts a vigorous history with impressive achievements. Daily, its students dive into learning and building social connections. Post-graduation, a significant number go on to further studies or secure stable, long-term employment, positively impacting their whānau and extending benefits well beyond the classroom walls.

“What often goes unsaid is the profound impact our students have on all of us. They teach us valuable lessons about inclusion, resilience, and finding joy in the simplest moments. Their determination to learn, socialise, and showcase their talents is nothing short of inspiring. Whenever I need a burst of motivation, I often have a wander to the Hub to be amongst our amazing whaikaha students. Their enthusiasm and joy never fails to reignite my passion and focus,” said Katie.

Dr Bruffy acknowledged the many supporters who had helped the facility come to life.

“This would not be possible without our stakeholders at Unitec and external supporters like government agencies, non-profits, and employers. A big shoutout to Geneva Health and to our incredible staff, past and present, who infused fun and creativity into learning, pushing boundaries and striving for excellence.”

Looking ahead, the school is exploring new opportunities, such as embedding overnight trips into the curriculum, expanding course offerings and exploring research opportunities, both nationally and globally.

“The possibilities are endless, and it's thanks to the support of Unitec, our stakeholders, and most importantly, our students and their whānau, that we can dream big,” Katie adds. “As we embark on this new chapter, I extend my heartfelt thanks to everyone who has been a part of this journey. And to those who are curious or wish to get involved, please don't hesitate to reach out. Together, we will continue to champion inclusion, empower lives, and create a brighter future for all.”

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