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The Waitaki district is full of hardworking people who are dedicated to making a difference in their communities.

When we are so often faced with news that is challenging and troubling, the chance to shine a light on those people brings joy and inspiration – especially as we count down to Christmas.

This is the fourth year the Oamaru Mail has named its Waitakians of the Year, and we believe we have found an excellent mix of devoted members of the community, thanks to your nominations. There are no trophies, no certificates, no hefty cheques, just a nod from us to them to say “thanks” and “well done”.

This is by no means an exhaustive list. There are so many people we could have selected more people we don’t even know about, who are working away under the radar and whose efforts, compassion and time provide a significant contribution to the community.

If you are one of those people, you have our thanks and admiration.

Annabel Berry

Annabel Berry.

Change doesn’t just happen in a community. It takes people like Annabel Berry who can generate ideas and have the commitment to see them through.

In recent years, there’s been a lot of discussion about the growing number of empty shops in central Oamaru, and calls from the Chamber of Commerce and other members of the community for something to be done.

In April this year, there were 18 empty store fronts in Oamaru’s central business district between Usk St and Itchen St – and Mrs Berry decided to do something about it, bringing the business community together in a series of meetings to work on town revitalisation, marketing and promotions.

Her ideas have been bold and ambitious. Some have drawn criticism, and a community meeting in July became quite heated as different views were exchanged, but there’s no denying her impact and the power of starting a conversation. Since she started those conversations, the number of empty shops in Oamaru’s main street has halved.

Following a meeting in July, she founded the Oamaru Business Collective to provide a united voice for the Oamaru business community. It now has more than 100 members.

She was a driving force behind the Shoptober campaign and late night shopping – all while running her own business and being a busy mother of three. Mrs Berry has brought the community together to promote change, help provide a united voice for Oamaru businesses and create a greater future for the town.

Ralph Darling

Ralph Darling. Photo: Martin Hunter/Getty Images

Ralph Darling – the man, the myth, the legend.

One of North Otago rugby’s favourite sons, Mr Darling has played more than 100 games for the Old Golds and represented the country in the New Zealand Heartland XV again this year.

He is a prop who can play like a back. He is a cool and calm head, and a great role model displaying leadership, inspiration and grunt on and off the field.

Nobody blurs the line between an old-school and modern prop like Mr Darling.

The Old Boys stalwart is a real club man, solid as a rock in the scrums and never takes a backwards step on the field. But he is also softly spoken, has a silky set of skills, reads the game like Dan Carter, and has a penchant for the outrageous.

If the last time we saw Mr Darling in a North Otago shirt was hoisting the Meads Cup after beating Wanganui in the Heartland rugby final, then it would be a fitting end to a great career.

If it was not, and we suspect as much, look forward to more miss-passes and dropped-goals next year.

Breanna Greaney

Now more than ever, young people are demonstrating the power of open, participatory and collective action.

Breanna Greaney

Rather than waiting for big social problems to be solved by government action, young people are adopting a DIY ethos, to make change and meaningfully include and empower more people.

In Oamaru, Breanna Greaney (17) has been going the extra mile to serve and inspire her school and the community.

Breanna was one of the founders of the Waitaki Girls’ High School Enviro Club, which now has more than 30 active members. This year, she co-led the club, which was involved in events such as beach clean-ups, native plantings, a waste-free week, and was part of discussions about expanding her school’s rapidly growing Enviroschools programme.

She met Waitaki Mayor Gary Kircher to discuss the project and what the council was doing to support environmental awareness in regards to climate change, coastal erosion and their possible future impacts.

In April, she took part in the Sir Peter Blake Trust Youth EnviroLeaders’ Forum in Waikato, as one of 55 New Zealanders to be selected.

“I am passionate about the environment and want to gain more knowledge that I can bring back to the community,” she told the Oamaru Mail earlier this year.

“Actually making a difference in the community is my ultimate goal.”

In May, she helped lead Oamaru’s rally in the global “School Strike 4 Climate” action strike, starting a conversation among Oamaru high school pupils and giving youth a chance to engage with elected officials on environmental issues.

This young woman’s future looks bright.

Gordon Martin

When Gordon Martin was asked to grow a few swan plants to help attract more monarch butterflies to Oamaru, he did not know a thing about them.

He does now.

Gordon Martin

Over the past 18 months, the Rotarian and Waitaki Community Gardens head gardener has grown more than 1000 swan plants in Oamaru – and he is still planting.

He has been helping to lead a project to preserve the monarch butterfly population, and make Oamaru the monarch butterfly capital of New Zealand.

His efforts are already paying dividends and Mr Martin is getting a real buzz out of seeing the community get so excited over the monarch butterfly project.

In August, Oamaru residents were delighted to see a mass of orange brightening up the Oamaru Public Gardens as hundreds of monarch butterflies fed on Scottish heather plants.

As far as volunteers go, you will not find many as enthusiastic as Mr Martin. He has been volunteering at the Waitaki Community Gardens as head gardener for about eight years and has been a member of the Rotary Club for more than 50 years.

He was also a justice of the peace for 38 years.

When Mr Martin was nominated for the New Zealander of the Year award in 2017, he said the reason he wanted to do volunteer work in the first place was to continue to make connections with people and as long as he was able to, he hoped to continue to serve the community.

Eric Spittal

May 12, 1943-Sept 22, 2019

Eric Spittal was a long-serving fire officer and prominent community man who supported and mentored many throughout the Waitaki district and further afield.

Eric Spittal

Tributes flowed for the popular former rural fire officer following his death, age 76, on September 22 this year.

Mr Spittal served in the police force and the army. He was also a three-term Waimate borough councillor.

But he was best known in the Waitaki district for his rural fire and emergency work, handling major natural disasters such as floods and snowstorms, and as a volunteer for many years with the Lions Club.

He was also the first chairman of the inaugural Relay for Life in Oamaru and was well known to the community, urban and rural.

In times of panic, Mr Spittal was known to bring calm. He was well respected, and a true gentleman.

In 2013, he received a Royal Humane Society of New Zealand bravery award for risking his life to save a Waikouaiti couple from a burning car, trapped by a high voltage line after a crash near Oamaru in 2008.

The first firefighter on the scene, Mr Spittal was thrown off his feet by an electric shock as he reached the car. That wasn’t enough to stop him – he then climbed under the vehicle but was forced back when electricity started arcing through his body.

Mr Spittal and Oamaru firefighter Brett Delamere, who also received a Royal Humane Society of New Zealand bravery award for his efforts, came close to dying that day as they worked to save the Waikouaiti couple.

“But that’s what we are here for,” Mr Spittal said about people who worked for emergency services, after he received his bravery medal.

“On that occasion, we all truly saved two lives. That was a privilege.”

Waitakians of the Year

2016: Kevin Malcolm, Carly Laughton, Francois Mostert, Clive Rennie, Jill McDonald and John Oakes.

2017: Stefan Witehira, Anne Wilkinson, Harry Andrew, Sandra Tonkin and Adair Craik.

2018: Sally-Ann Donnelly, Mike Sandri, Duncan Drew, Carol Berry, Georgie Salter and Hana Halalele.

2019: Annabel Berry, Breanna Greaney, Ralph Darling, Gordon Martin and Eric Spittal.