Mariana’s a volunteer with a whole lot of heart


Aotearoa’s Festival of Adult Learning is on! We’re celebrating stories of Kiwis helping Kiwis while learning along the way.

 Mariana Alletson-Collins and Tong Su have a shared aim: making sure Tong flourishes in her New Zealand life. 


“It’s the highlight of my week seeing Tong,” says Mariana, who took on the volunteering challenge of teaching English so Tong can live more independently.

Tong, originally from China, had learned a little English from studying at an English school in Palmerston North. “I think the hours were a bit tricky with the children, though,” Mariana says.

Her busy learner has eight-year-old twins with autism. “Everything is 100 miles an hour,” says Mariana. “Tong has to keep her eyes on them every second they’re home.”

Lessons take place when the boys are at school, and Mariana delights in Tong’s everyday triumphs.

A driver’s licence is a recent victory as it’s given Tong the freedom to get out and about with her kids. Although her Chinese licence was converted to a restricted New Zealand one, she couldn’t have passengers.

It’s the highlight of my week seeing Tong.

“She’s incredibly motivated,” says Mariana. “Ever since we started, she really wanted to get her full driver’s licence. That was the driving force!”

Mariana says preparing for the practical was quite a challenge. “Oh my gosh yes, we went out a lot driving, driving, driving.”

When Tong initially failed the test, blackboard diagrams helped explore what had gone wrong. “Dealing with the disappointment, that was the hardest part,” says Mariana. “She could hardly believe it when she passed!”

“It was so wonderful,” Mariana says. “Now she can drive anywhere she wants. She can go to the supermarket by herself, or to the hospital or the doctors for a blood test.”

“She drove herself to our yum char last Friday, which was very cool!”

Mariana’s a senior nutrition advisor for the Heart Foundation, supporting early learning centres and schools to promote the important work of ‘heart health’. She loves her job and after nine years in the job still gets a real kick out of it. “I feel lucky, it’s really rewarding work.”

It’s also how she ended up volunteering for English Language Partners (ELP). She belongs to a group with an oral health focus and ELP came along. “I kind of got pulled into it!”

“I enjoy volunteering. It’s that social connection; I love chatting to people and helping to ‘fill those gaps’ so the community can do better. I’m willing and able so why not?”

Mariana already volunteered for a local athletics club and was looking for another opportunity. She’d done an online Teaching English as a Second Language course years ago and saw ESOL home tutoring as a neat fit. “I hadn’t been able to use those skills, so it sounded fantastic.”

Mariana really enjoyed the training. “It was inspiring being with so many kind-hearted and likeminded people.” She says the activities helped people reflect on the way we talk and how difficult it is for somebody who’s not native to English. “Often, we talk quite quickly, and don’t finish our words,” she says. “A classic one is ‘Good girl’, it’s like ‘goo girl.’ I just never thought about that.”

Another useful aspect was learning about the challenges former refugees and migrants face moving to New Zealand.

“Look at what these people go through,” says Mariana. “To settle in a new country and find your way without being able to speak the language, I can’t even get my head around how difficult that would be. It’s very, very humbling.”

I enjoy volunteering. It’s that social connection.

Mariana has a lot of empathy for her learner’s considerable life challenges in managing children with autism while also learning English. She says it was delightful meeting Tong for the first time. “She greeted me at the door and remembered my name and had her pens and paper ready to learn. It’s been a really good match. It's been very special.”

For her exceptional work, Mariana won a Volunteer Recognition award and invited Tong along to share the occasion, which is run by Whatunga Tūao Volunteer Central. “It was a good chance for Tong to get out of the house, use a bit of her English and do something different,” says Mariana. “I was more excited for her than myself!”


“It was also cool because it made you aware of a lot of other organisations. It was humbling to see all the great stuff people are doing every day,” she says. "The world just wouldn’t be what it is without all the volunteers."

Mariana says they’ve set the next goal for Tong, who studied Japanese tourism in China before moving to New Zealand. “She wants to get a job,” Mariana says. “Obviously with her constraints, it’s kind of tricky, but she’s interested in waitressing and very determined now she’s got her licence. It’s just incredible.”

Mariana says we all have skills to share. “The fact that we speak English, it’s just something we take for granted, but being able to support other people and see them progress to become more independent in the community, it’s absolutely amazing to see the difference it can make to somebody’s life."

The world just wouldn’t be what it is without all the volunteers.

"It’s like you’re the training wheels on the bike. Then all of a sudden, they start to come off and they’re off!

We all have skills to share. Volunteer and help YOUR community flourish!

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ESOL Home Tutoring

  • 1-2 hours per week
  • Learn about New Zealand culture
  • Trained, volunteer tutors
  • Lessons in your home
  • For New Zealand citizens and residents
  • Free programme
  • In all centres
  • Find out more
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Volunteer ESOL Home Tutoring

  • Help former refugees and migrants learn English
  • Indepth training course provided
  • Visit learners in their own homes
  • 1-2 hours per week
  • Learn about other cultures
  • Make new friends
  • Give back and make NZ a better place!
  • In all centres
  • Find out more

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