Waikato Wellbeing Project Lots of Little Fires

Aunty to the Hood

Joe Wilson on June 2023

Awwwww hey brother Joe!!!!”

Shani waves and calls out from across the golf club car park. With that familiar bright smile and spring in her step, Shani walks over to the putting green, where I've been missing putts for the past ten minutes and gives me a massive hug.

So good to see you bro!” Shani says. I return the compliment and add how grateful I am for her making the time for us to catch up and allowing us to film and share her story with Lots of Little Fires.

Shani and I have known each other for about four years now. Her energy and passion for people who want to support the people, especially rangatahi, in her community is infectious and seemingly unlimited.

We met this morning at Huntly Golf Club, a place that holds a special place in Shani’s heart.

“I was raised out here by my Koko and my Nan” says Shani. “I spent so much of my youth playing golf. My Koko and my Nan really pushed me to play golf and to get really good.”

Shani participating in Lots of Little Fires video

“I was pretty good and I’m pretty competitive haha, I’m very competitive!” Shani laughs. “I won a lot of competitions in my short golf career; I was good, and I enjoyed it.”

Huntly Golf club has become a place of healing for Shani and a place that has welcomed her back fifteen years after she first left and stopped playing golf. The time between has seen some amazing highs and some extreme lows, lows that have tested the limits of Shani’s resolve and ability to endure. It is this journey that has shaped and moulded Shani into the strong, inspiring and caring wahine she is today and a story she is passionate about sharing with others. Without the turbulence, heartache and desperate times, Shani is adamant she could not give back to her community in the unique way that she does today.

“Oh, I tell you, I’ve seen it all. Coming from meth addiction and gangs…I’ve seen things, I’ve heard things, I’ve done things I’m not proud of…I didn’t think life could be so bad, but it can.  Finding a way out of that, to build the life I am building now, is something I know I have to always keep working hard on and never give up for me and my kids. But I am, and I am so proud of myself and grateful for every opportunity to grow”.

I ask Shani to walk me through her journey, where she’s been to where she is now. Shani hopes her story can both inspire other wahine and rangatahi going through hard times and help develop understanding for people who have not been through these struggles and experiences. 

“If an intelligent girl who grew up playing golf, with relative privilege, can still make really bad choices and get into a criminal life and addiction, then maybe it can help create better understanding of those who do not live in the hood. I’d like for them to cast less judgement on our rangatahi today who are facing bigger struggles than I faced because of the environment they are raised in. I hope it can help them understand that we are not all bad people, that we can just get caught up and lost in a world that we don't want to be in but often can’t find a way out.”

We decide to jump in a golf cart and play some holes of golf while the weather allows. Shani is happy to share her story and figured it made sense to start at the beginning with her upbringing and how golf has come full circle in her life.

“Well growing up I had the perfect life. I had everything I wanted and needed, I was a little princess haha! I was raised by my Koko and my Nan here in Raahui Pookeka. My parents were young when they had me and were not in a healthy place to raise me together, so yeah, I was raised well by my grandparents.

Initially Shani didn’t enjoy golf and admits it was rare for a young Māori girl to be playing golf at the time.

“I only played it as my Koko and my Nan spent all their time down at the golf club and made me learn to play. I hated it at the start haha! But once I got the hang of it and got good, I really enjoyed it and played heaps.”

However, when Shani turned 14, she started to rebel. Her interest in golf started to fade and the lure of mischief and excitement from the other crowds she was hanging around withdrew her attention away from playing golf and the stable life that surrounded it.

“I dunno, I just didn't want to play anymore. I started doing heaps of dumb stuff; running away from home, bunking school, stealing…and eventually I got caught stealing. I went off golf…I think it was more my grandparents dream for me to become a golf star, not mine.”

At that time, Shani was put with a social youth worker called Donyelle Wirihanga from Maatua Whāngai.

“Donyelle was amazing. She used to come to see me at School, sit with me and just ask me ‘how's things with you?’ and just chat, you know?” It’s only when I look back now, having trained in youth mahi, I realise awww she was social serving me haha!”

Reflecting on the impact Donyelle had on her life, Shani is staunch about the role in which she played in helping guide her to the life she is living now.

“It’s not just what you get from a youth coach at the time, it’s often years later that the messages, the support and the kindness they give ring true and help guide us through the hardest times. Just knowing someone special has your back and cares for you as a rangatahi is so powerful. Donyelle is a big reason why I do the mahi I do now for other rangatahi in my community.”

At that time, Shani wanted to live with her mum because she knew her mum would be less strict and give her the freedom to roam, to smoke and to drink alcohol. Shani’s parents were 16/17 when she was born but split soon after.

“Being with my Koko and my Nan, they gave me everything I could have wanted. They were really strict with me, I guess so I wouldn't make bad choices and get into trouble, but it was maybe that which made me want to rebel in the end, I don’t know… I just wanted to be a kid you know.”

Shani’s Koko was the constable at the local police station and her Nan was the post lady. Both were well respected in the community and they’re the reason Shani was able to play golf.

“It’s through privilege that I got to play golf and have the upbringing I had, I was a little princess haha!”

On reflection, Shani believes not having a relationship with her mum and dad growing up did have an effect on her. One which may, in part, have led to some of the choices and lifestyles she found herself living in after leaving home.

“I guess there were feelings of abandonment and that I was not good enough or wanted. It is stuff I have done a lot of work on more recently and now I have a good relationship with them.”

One of the highs came in 2008. Shani was encouraged to enter a local pageant in Raahui Pookeka, where she lived, and ended up winning ‘Miss Huntly’. Not long after, she received a phone call asking her to represent as Miss Aotearoa New Zealand.

Next minute I’m on a plane to Samoa representing ‘Miss Aotearoa New Zealand’ haha, I was just a little Māori girl from Huntly. It was such an awesome experience and something I’m so proud of myself for doing at that age.’

Life at that time was looking good. The pageant experiences led to some acting and modelling work in Auckland and Shani’s world started opening up.

‘It was great, and I really enjoyed it. I said at the pageant in Samoa that one day I want to be a youth worker and give back to my community.”

Just as all this was happening, Shani fell pregnant with her then boyfriend and the man who would become the father to Shani’s four children.

“I guess I chose to put my aspirations and dreams to the side to be a parent…yeah, that was hard because I was really enjoying the opportunities that were coming my way.”

Sadly, this was also a point at which a cycle of events, choices and experiences led Shani into what she describes as ‘the darkest period of her life’. Gradually Shani and her partner became heavily involved with meth, alcohol, marijuana and gambling. They were using it and selling it to their community. They were burning their bridges in Huntly and in 2015 they moved to Tauranga.

“I didn’t want to be the person I was being. I would pray to be someone else, the person I was raised to be. I’d look in the mirror and say, ‘this is not me’ and would cry and cry looking for a way out.” Shani says

Shani wipes the tears from her eyes, and I gently remind her that she does not need to share anything that she does not want to. Shani being Shani, she pushes back and says.

No, this is why I share my story, because I have to for others who are lost and need help. I have come to peace with my past and now I embrace what happened because it has led me to where I am today and without it, I wouldn't be me.”

Shani continues to tell me about the dark depths of her meth addiction and the implications it had on her as a mother.

“My parents wanted to take my kids off me. I was pregnant and still using it. I was so lost to the addiction and the life that came with it.”

The tears flow again, but the raw honesty and sincerity with which Shani shares her story is so inspiring through the bravery it clearly takes to relive and own the past choices she has made.

“There was a point where things did get better. Housing New Zealand got us a house in Tauranga, and I managed to get off the drugs and get clean. Things were good and I was studying towards my level 4 in social work”

Unfortunately, as was the pattern that had been developing in Shani’s journey, just as a good patch came, an even harder time was around the corner.

“So yeah, at that point my kid's dad decided to join a gang. He said it would be all good and that nothing would change for us as a family…biggest load of shit I ever heard.”

At first Shani says it wasn’t too bad, but the fact they lived as a sweet family in a nice house meant they were the perfect foil for the gang to store their drugs, money and weapons.

“I would have ‘brothers’ turning up with wounds from ‘acts of war’ as they would call it and be dragged into my house bleeding in front of my kids. We lived in fear all the time. Gangsters coming in and out of our home whenever they pleased. We had drugs, money and weapons all stashed in the roof. It was horrible and I just wanted to escape from it all.”

As things seemingly couldn't get any worse, Shani’s partner, and father to her four children, ran off with the vice president of the gang’s wife. He had a bounty on his head.

It was horrendous, all of it. The head of the gang came to my house asking me to tell him where my partner was, he said he’d give me 10, then 14 grand to tell him. But I didn’t know, and I told him, ‘As much as I hate him, he is the father to my children, and I can’t do anything that would hurt them… they loved him.’ It was just horrible.”

Shani’s tears flow again. We hug it out and find some lightness in the moment as a golfer on the tee behind us shouts ‘FOUR!’ and then curses his ‘stupid clubs!’. We laugh and just take a moment to breathe, and Shani reflects on being so grateful to have come through it all.

“The truth is I was broken. I knew I had to leave and just do something. I would cry and cry thinking ‘how am I living this life’, all of it. I was raised to be so different from what I’ve turned out to be…this is not me, it’s not who I am.”

Shani recounts how this lowest moment was the beginning of the end of the life she had been living and the start of the new life she had been craving for so long.

“I drove myself to the urupa where my Nan and aunties were buried. I sat by their graves and cried the ugliest cry. I was at the bottom, I wanted to throw my life away. I spoke to my tupuna and asked them for their help and as I looked to the sky the clouds parted and a beam of sunlight came down on me. I just broke down. I looked at the names of the wahine on the gravestones and thought about the hardships they all went through and the strength and love they carried throughout. I knew that I had to honour them, that I am part of them and that I too have the strength to change my life.”

Shani returned to Tauranga and told the gang captain she was leaving and taking her kids away with her to start again. She packed up her life and returned to Raahui Pookeka where she felt her tupuna would support and guide her.

Incredibly, throughout the chaos, Shani had managed to complete her level four in social services. Good friends on the course helped her through and encouraged her to use her situation and upbringing in her assignments.

“It helped me recognise how what I was going through is what others go through and I could kind of see my life from the outside in and it helped me to work through it.”

Raahui Pookeka was calling, and Shani’s niece Sheryl and her partner Letari were already heavily involved and leading in youth mahi in the community. She hit them up and together they started figuring out ways in which she could get involved with the rangatahi in her hometown.

At the same time, Shani figured she would head back to Huntly Golf Club, back to the place where she was raised so gently and where it felt safe. She began to play again, and it helped start to bring her back to who she was and to be around kind and supportive people.

I was hesitant at first because I thought I’d be rubbish haha but it turned out I still had the goods! It felt really good to just get out and play, you know, and it was such a nice release from the life I had been living. Just being out in the fresh air in nature and doing something I was good at again, it just felt good.”

Being back in Raahui Pookeka with her four kids was good but also brought its own challenges.

“It’s hard being a solo mum!” Shani laughs.

I think for anyone, relocating and resettling back to our hometowns is always a challenge and can bring up a range of emotions. But as Shani got involved with the youth mahi her niece and friends were leading, she began reconnecting with her community and things started to flow. She found herself being that ‘person’ who a lot of the rangatahi in the community would feel safe talking to and chilling with.

“Well, some of my nephews and their mates who were getting into trouble at the time were hanging at my house. I would listen to them and relate to their situations. Kind of an ‘auntie to the hood’. They knew my story and I guess I had their respect and was able to get through to them; they would listen to me and let me help guide them a bit.”

Finding that clear sense of purpose and giving back to her community has seen such a wonderful transformation in Shani’s life. Being directly involved with and now leading on so many awesome kaupapa is building positive pathways and experiences for the rangatahi and whanau she relates to and is connected with in her community.

When I ask Shani why she wants to do what she is doing, to give back, she pauses and reflects.

“Even when my life was so dark, I always said I wana be like Donyelle, I wana be that person for other kids like me who were somewhat getting lost on their pathway. I just wanted to be someone's person if they needed, especially a young person. Like I've watched some of my nephews, this generation, go through all the hard yards that I went through, but they don’t have anybody. I knew, I just knew that I had to come home and put all the mahi I’d learned over the years I had to bring home and back to my community.”

Since returning home, Shani has worked in several different youth development roles including time with Te Ahurei e Rangatahi and the Graeme Dingle Foundation. One of her highlights has been linking up with other local champions in the community and creating opportunities and pathways for local rangatahi to learn to play golf at Huntly Golf Club.

“Ahh I dunno! I just lent on the brothers Lucas, Hiki and Russ, our Golf Club Manager, and managed to get our alternative ed students playing golf and getting to experience the game. It’s been great! I organised a big golf competition and we now have some amazing young players come through. These are kids that would never normally get the chance to play golf but now they are and it’s so cool!”

Recognising the hugely positive impact being a part of a golf club has on the social and personal skills of young people, Shani is always advocating and looking for ways to remove any barriers to access for the rangatahi in her community. The goal is to try and even the playing field and expose them to other relationships and opportunities that they wouldn’t otherwise get in their usual environments.

Well, it started because some of the kids Hiki was teaching in his alternative ed class were hitting golf balls in the field behind my house, so I was like bro, I think they wana try play golf! Hiki was like, ‘are you sure?!’ haha!. So, we took them to the driving range and most of them were into it. It’s taken a while but some of them have really stuck with it.”

Shani speaks highly of Russ Ford, the manager at the club.

“He has really helped me get back into playing and in supporting the rangatahi coming into the club and learning to play. The culture of the club is changing and there are now heaps of Māori whanau playing and chilling out here. It’s really cool and healthy for our rangatahi to be in positive environments like this with us role models supporting them.”

 I ask Shani what is next for her now, what new kaupapa are brewing?

“Well, I’ve been really involved with the Kaitiaki Project most recently. It’s a kind of alternative mental health project that allows our people to come together, hikoi in nature and then go through practices that allow us to heal from our traumas. We learn to love ourselves again and to release the pain we have been carrying. It is honestly incredible.”

Having been through the healing process of the kaupapa herself, Shani has just stepped into a leadership role.

“The first time I did it I was really doubtful, but the hikoi made me realise I was there to heal not only from my ex-partner, but from my whole life.”

We do things like the eye gaze and breathwork. They all work so powerfully and allow us to realise all our choices we are accountable for, and to forgive ourselves for our past actions to release us for our ongoing futures, without blame and resentment of ourselves.”

Shani humbly explains how the leader of the Kaitiaki project saw Shani’s natural leadership qualities and has gently encouraged her to lead within the kaupapa. This led to Shani organising the first wahine hikoi, here in Raahui Pookeka, earlier this year and there are now more wahine hikoi planned throughout the year.

“I know there is so much need for this mahi, it has helped me, and my people and I feel it can help so many others. There is so much need for it. The hardest part is the suicide circle…we stand in a circle and are asked to step into the circle if we have thought about suicide this year, this month, this week… today? It is clear we have a problem and through this process we can start to heal and to find a way through together.”

Shani also sees the need for a rangatahi focussed kaupapa as she knows her nieces and nephews struggle with the same things her and the other adults do.

“Yeah, we are looking at what a rangatahi focussed kaupapa would look like and so that's in the pipeline too!”

We stand on the 9th tee block and hit the last tee shots of our round. Just as we walk down the fairway, Shani shouts over to a group of older men playing on the adjacent hole.

You missed the green! Must be getting old matua haha!” she yells laughing “I knew all these guys growing up here, that one used to work with Koko in the police!”

Watching Shani interact with everyone around her, it is clear to see that she is very loved, valued and appreciated by those in the club and surrounding community. Knowing where her life was and where she is now, it is heartwarming to see how happy and joyful she is.

I ask her why she is driven to do what she does, why she cares so much for the rangatahi and people around her.

“Why me?? We do it because we have to! Once you’ve lived and seen it you can’t unsee it. You have to look after those who are going through it and walk alongside them on their journeys. I also learned, through Kaitiaki, that sharing your story could be someone else’s survival guide so I feel that is a way I can really help.”

My last question to Shani is how other people would comment on her and what she feels her legacy would be?

“People say I bring a fun and vibey energy. Many have said that I am quite a lighthouse, for those who sit in the darkness, to guide them back home.”

We finish our game and walk back to the car park. Luckily, we didn't keep score as I’m pretty sure Shani won!

Watch the video here


Sharing Lots of Little Fire
Feel free to share this story on social media and tag @lotsoflittlefires
When sharing please credit: Joe Wilson and Lots of Little Fires