Whanake Youth co-founder and manager Lee-ann O’Brien has been nominated for a Kiwibank Local Hero Award. Photo: Jonty Dine.

Lee-ann lauded for youth work


From a youth worker to an adolescent nurse specialist to educator, Lee-ann O’Brien has been helping young people since she was one herself.

Lee-ann is the manager and cofounder of Whanake Youth, a hub for local young people to escape the stresses in their lives.

“It is a place for young people to be the best versions of themselves they can possibly be.”

Lee-ann opened the youth service in 2015 after seeing a gap in what was needed for young people in our community.

Whether it’s food, clothing, emotional or physical health problems, Whanake Youth caters to every need.

“We want to walk alongside young people whatever that journey looks like.”

Lee-ann’s unwavering commitment to local youth has seen her nominated for a Kiwibank Local Hero Award.

Lee-ann says a number of the children in Whanake’s care have difficult home lives.

“We look to take people out of home environments which are a bit tricky and give them a space that is just for them. It is not just about life skills development but teaching them to be young people again.”

New friends, improved self-confidence and its famous cheese toasties have made Whanake Youth a popular hangout spot for young people in Nelson.

“I think it is important for the wellbeing of people.”

Lee-ann grew up in a small town in the Bay of Plenty.

“There were a lot of different cultures and socioeconomic situations, I saw young people who didn’t have a lot of money and I wanted to make a difference in their lives.”

She was just 15 when she began working with young people and says her passion for her work comes from her own life experiences.

“I’m adopted, so knowing where I fit in this world is really important. I want young people to know they belong.”

During the Covid-19 lockdown, Lee-ann and her team delivered support packages to young people every week as a way to continue the support it usually provides in-person, including counselling services and health clinics.

“We identified children with chronic health or emotional needs,” she says. “We had a list of 500 people who we maintained regular contact with.”

Lee-ann also founded the Wicked Tooth Fairy project, which is used as a model for dental services around the country.

The project connects young people to dentists, even if this means spending the morning just introducing a child to the dentist.

“You can’t put a price on a smile.”

She also oversaw the refurbishment of the new Whanake Youth drop-in centre, located at the back of the Stoke Memorial Hall.

Lee-ann says being recognised by the Kiwibank Local Hero Awards is a “little bit surreal”.

“It’s just what we do but it’s great to be acknowledged for the work we all do. We do this because young people are important. The time we invest in them now is important and will make a difference into adulthood.”