Waikato Wellbeing Project Lots of Little Fires

Meeting Thomas Nabbs

by Joe Wilson 20 July 2023

Will there ever be an alarm sound that actually makes you want to get out of bed?

It is 3am and I am trying to remember if starting the day this early had anything to do with me. Like any well meaning, yet ill disciplined morning person, I set my alarm 45 minutes before I need to get up. This gives me the snooze time I need to run through my day ahead, question the entire meaning of life and figure out if there is any legitimate reason I can think of that means I could fall back to sleep yet still get everything done without letting anyone down. Having gone through this daily process, albeit slightly earlier today, I reluctantly came to the conclusion that yes I do need to get up, yes this was my idea and yes there is meaning to life…coffee. 

Shani participating in Lots of Little Fires video

The reason for today's extra early start is in fact an incredibly special opportunity and one that I am grateful to experience. We are filming this month's Little Fire on the east coast for a sunrise story with the inspiring Thomas Nabbs at his whanau’s urupa in Te Puna.

Thomas is the founder and director of The Waterboy with Lugtons and Taku Wairua. Two youth wellbeing and social equity based programmes that sit under Te Tamawai Trust. The programmes are based on equitable access to sporting opportunities and personal development and growth. Fundamentally they exist to provide rangatahi with the support and opportunities that they otherwise would not get as a result of the environment in which they live.

Muredach, Thomas and I all meet at the Waterboy with Lugtons headquarters, otherwise known as Fraser Tech Rugby Club, and we jump in the same car to make the journey to Te puna together. Driving through the dark waiting excitedly for the first coffee stop that's open, we chat freely and Thomas shares a lot of his journey to this point. 

“You can't understand Taku Wairua until you understand the ‘Water Boy’, because that's how it all started…well actually it started a long time before that, but that's when the realisation came.”

The Waterboy came about because Thomas saw, through his own rugby playing career, that they were young players who could not attend training or matches simply because they did not have access to or could not afford the transport to get there. It was this constantly recurring observation that convinced Thomas to reflect on how he could do something meaningful in his own community and this led him to come home from his work and rugby playing career abroad to set up what is now known as ‘The Waterboy with Lugtons’. 

“So I started the WaterBoy, which is now the Water Boy with Lugtons, and in those early days I'd be driving, rangatahi to and from sport and, and having conversations with them, and especially on the way back from sport, they'd just open up massively. They’d talk about anything you wanted to talk about with them, basically that you had this like, gold time with them. I'd often stop and buy them food on the way home because sometimes they wouldn't get it at home, but also because I wanted to prolong this mean chat that we were having. And so over the years I identified through heaps of conversations and through a number of different youth that we were supporting in sport, there was a lack of information, or lessons being passed down from the parents generation, or the generation before that, lessons which I had the privilege of being taught myself by my grandparents and my parents.

During one of the minibus runs he found out one of the boys shared an extended family name with him.

“My eyes lit up and I was like, ‘bro, we’re cousins!’... tell me about your whanau…but he didn't know anything about them and I was gutted. He had no stories, no connection and I just knew this was a problem. How could he be proud of his name if he doesn’t know anything about the people who have come before him. If we go back far enough, there is always a story of someone in our families that we can be proud of and use for inspiration in our own lives. So I took some of the things that I identified were pivotal in my upbringing, combined them with well researched personal development practices and put them into a programme that could operate alongside the Water Boy. This is how Taku Wairua came about and it is built on four  pillars which are; belonging and identity, self-discovery and self-awareness, goal setting and citizenship/giving back.”

It is still dark and we are almost at Te Puna when Thomas shouts out. “Here…coffee, pull in here.” We all breathe a sigh of relief. Turns out we are all coffee addicts and starting the day this early without coffee is a rarity for each of us. Before I can get out the car, Thomas has already made it into the BP garage and ordered our drinks. 

We jump back in the car and finish the last leg of our journey happily caffeinated and ready to get into filming. Just as the sun threatens to slowly start to rise, we turn onto a quiet road that leads us up to Thomas’ whanau urupa. We pull up on the roadside and quickly help Muredach get the camera  gear out the boot.  Muredach switches into film director role…

“Ok Joe” muredach calls out, “Can you hold this light beam and walk just behind Thomas while I film him walking down the road? I think it’ll look awesome just as the sun comes up”. 

I love working with Muerdach and Thomas admits that he too is a fan. As Muredach continues filming footage of Thomas, I soak in the peace and quiet and beautiful sunrise that is unfolding around us. I reflect on the conversations we had in the car on the way here. What strikes me with Thomas is that he has committed his life to running a kaupapa that is all about giving back and social justice for those who are experiencing a set of experiences that he himself, for the most part, did not. He touched on a time in his childhood where he started to flirt with making negative social choices and admits that he was attracted to that lifestyle for a short time, but owns the fact that he was raised with relative privilege, support and was set up to succeed in his sport, education and career. 

After the first set of filming was complete, I picked up on this part of Thomas' journey and asked him to explain a little more about why he does what he does.

“Although my direct family was stable and comfortable, I had friends and cousins who really struggled financially and socially and so I was always really aware that there were so many young people who did not have what I and others had. I was able to feel comfortable in lots of different social groups growing up and I think that's a big part of who I am today. I am simply a product of my environment” Thomas says. “I was role modelled with all the traits and behaviours that I needed to be successful in my life and provided the opportunities and support so I could work hard and develop myself to be whatever I wanted to be and I just want to help provide those opportunities and support for others who maybe don’t get it at home.”

Thomas is staunch about the need for hard work to succeed in life in order to achieve any form of success, but is absolutely clear that hard work alone means nothing without an environment and a support system that provides the foundations and access to opportunity  for that hard work to take place and manifest into success. 

To make his point, Thomas refers to a line he has read that challenges the myth of meritocracy;

“If hard work alone was the sole determinant of success, then all the women in Africa would be the most successful people in the world”.

Thomas often hears ‘successful’ people use the ‘hard work meritocracy’ argument to solely justify their hard earned success. He believes that many people are blind to the relative foundational privileges that have enabled them to succeed in the first place, regardless of the hard work they put in. He explains further that having business sponsorship for his charity allows people from relative privilege to get exposure to some of the hardships so many of our rangatahi are living through and provides an opportunity to shift some perspectives and an invitation to help level the playing field upon which the hard work can be developed.

As the sun slowly warms up the cool morning air and beams of golden light cascade over the land, Thomas invites us to walk around his whanau's urupa so we can visit and learn the stories of his tupuna. We walk around the many beautiful headstones and the stories flow…Uncle’s, aunties, grandparents, great grandparents…it is hard to keep up with who is who and how they all connect, but one thing is clearly consistent…the joy and pride with which Thomas talks about all his extended whanau and tupuna. It is really impressive how much he knows about his whanau, the personalities and quirky characters, and it makes me reflect on my family back in England. I realise that I have such little understanding of who I am and where I am from in comparison, let alone knowing where any of my ancestors are buried. 

Although it is becoming quite obvious, I ask Thomas why he wanted to film his story at his whanau urupa in Te Puna.

“A few years ago I lost both my own parents. They are now here with the rest of my family who are no longer with us. They are the reason why I am who I am today and I owe everything to them. It feels right to film my story here because it is not just my story, it is the story of all the members of my family and whanau who have supported and guided me to be who I am today.”

Thomas has a humility and openness about him that instantly makes you feel welcome and safe to be yourself. He also has a genuine interest, and an endless curiosity in you and your story; traits I have come to recognise as common in many successful people who are doing really special things with their life. He is also an avid reader of self development and personal growth. 

“I find it amazing that we have access to so much information, so much wisdom and so much help that we can all digest and apply to our own lives. I’m always recommending books to friends!” Thomas laughs while suggesting a couple that I would really like!

The urupa in Te Puna extends far back on Thomas’ fathers side of the family, The Nabbs. He spent a lot of his childhood here with extended whanau, his grandparents and his cousins. His mother’s family, the Forsyth’s, are from the Poverty Bay area and whakapapa back to Scotland on her fathers side.

“ I guess I am a multicultural mix!” laughs Thomas, “ a blend of many cultures, and I embrace that”.

Growing up next door to his grandparents, Thomas had access to all their love, wisdom and stories throughout his childhood. Thomas Laughs and says he wasn’t always interested in listening to his grandparents stories as a kid but realises now what an impact they had on him.

“I was an active and high energy kid and didn't always enjoy sitting and listening to stories about old people in pictures on the wall, but reflecting back, it was these stories that have subconsciously stayed with me throughout my life and have enabled me to feel proud of who I am and the whanau I am from.”

Thomas explains that it wasn’t so much they’d tell him about his tupuna being morally good people, it was more about how they told stories explaining what they did for mahi, the kaupapa they were supporting or leading in the community and examples of standing up for what is right. The combination of all these stories led him to identify that these were really good people, people that he could be proud of and people he is one of.

I ask Thomas for some of his final thoughts, what inspires him and what lights his fire.

“I fundamentally believe that people are a product of their environment. I am privileged to have grown up with loving, supportive, hard working parents who encouraged and supported me to be aspirational with my future. But what if you were raised in the opposite environment, what if you had little to no social or financial support, no access to healthy opportunities and no positive role models to try and emulate? How are you meant to succeed in life without these things? Levelling the playing field, creating the opportunities that I was gifted as a young person is what drives me to provide the same environment for rangatahi today who don’t have all these privileges I was afforded.

That is what drives me, and what lights my fire is seeing the rangatahi we are privileged to work with go on to succeed in their own lives and grow as people, yeah… that’s what lights my fire.’

We call it a wrap, high five a successful and really enjoyable morning's filming and agree it is absolutely time for our much needed second coffee of the day. “This ones on me” I shout as we pile back into Muredach’s car for the ride back home.

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