27 September 2021

Janice Lee: Shaking up the disability sector

Janice Lee is humble.

She unabashedly confesses she loathes the fuss made around her, everything she says draws back to her staff, her volunteers and the disabled community she works with.

“It’s not about me. If they hadn’t been proving my point that the system needs to change I wouldn’t be there. It’s about the people I work for, the people with disabilities, the people that are transforming their whole life,” she says.

Lee is the chief executive and founder of Koha Kai – an Invercargill-based organisation promoting resilience, equality and independence for those in the disabled community by providing vocational skills through learning to produce, cook, donate and sell kai.

She is also one of the three finalists in the Southland Business Excellence Awards under the Southern Institute of Technology Business Personality category.

Koha Kai was established in 2015 when Lee, a grandmother of 12, realised people with disabilities were not getting the assistance they need to form meaningful relationships, gain employment or establish confidence.

In the beginning, these skills were provided through cooking lunch for schoolchildren for a gold coin donation, but has now expanded to include catering services, providing food to other vulnerable communities and providing horticulture training in the growing of their own produce.

“The time was right for it to happen. But when I looked around there was nobody else doing it, so I thought if I can see it and there’s nobody else doing it, then it needs to be me who does it.”

These days Koha Kai employs 31 staff, has put more 104 trainees through its teaching program and has a strong network of volunteers behind them.

Lee’s role has changed since 2015, transitioning from a hands-on role in the kitchen to a more corporate role advocating for the national roll-out of disability services based on Koha Kai.

“I am still the CEO, I am still the dreamer and the person that puts the strategies in place, but the day to day running is now in the hands of other people,” she says.

Moving away from the kitchen was difficult for Lee, she said she had to be dragged out kicking and screaming, but her goal of creating equality and resilience across New Zealand pushed her forward.

“The big goal is the transformation of the system for New Zealand, and you can’t do that when you are running this business.”

She is working with National Disability Support services to facilitate the roll-out, and is confident the question is now not “if” it will happen, but “when”.

What hasn’t changed, however, is the primary struggle for the organisation.

“The challenges have always been the same: it’s financial.”

“We are doing something that has never been done before, so we don’t tick any of the boxes that would allow funding to support us. When you’re in that situation money is always the issue. We’ve always operated on the smell of an oily rag.”

She’s not intimated by the lack of funding, she laughs about knocking politicians doors down, but she’s staunch in maintaining her mission. It’s a distraction and she simply ignores it.

She attributes her steadfast demeanour to her Māori bloodlines – her father’s side is Ngāti Porou, known for being staunch and stubborn, and her mother’s side is Ngāi Tahu, visionary.

“The combination of those two bloodlines comes up with someone who won’t be moved, is very steadfast, but knows what they want to achieve. I know what I’m here for. If anything it’s my life’s purpose to do this job,” she says.

Lee describes being a finalist at the Southland Business Excellence Awards as an accident as she entered as an opportunity to get more recognition and profile for the people she works for.

“Every award we have won hasn’t been my award, it’s been acknowledgement and recognition and strengthens the people I work for. The people with disabilities. It makes them feel good,” she says.

The Southland Business Excellence Awards are scheduled to be held on October 15.

Published by Stuff.co.nz – 26 September 2021