Envoy Wi Pirihi has been a soldier of The Salvation Army at Whangārei Corps for the past 10 years. He is active in the corps, in Māori Ministry, and also has a great passion for young people. Wi has been working in schools across the city for six years, sharing kai (food) and life skills with the students, most recently at Bream Bay College.
In September of 2021, Wi was invited to a community hui to address bullying concerns at Bream Bay College, and to come up with a solution to reconnect the students. The idea of hosting hot soup and fry bread for lunch one day a week was floated, which was something that Wi and his team had already been doing in a couple of other schools. ‘I always remember our Founder’s idea [William Booth] of hot soup, soap and salvation; it’s stuck in my mind and my heart. Sharing food with young people brings them together,’ Wi explained.
It takes a village…
Each Tuesday, four to eight students from the school’s bilingual unit make soup and fry bread to serve to the other students, often making lunch for up to 220 young people each week. The unit is made up of 65 students, who all get an opportunity to help in the kitchen. There are many benefits for the young people who participate in the preparation, though it may not seem very exciting—peeling potatoes and washing dishes. The students are given responsibility in the kitchen to learn about teamwork and the importance of showing up for their classmates.
The team asked members of the community who felt comfortable chatting with and supporting the students during the kitchen prep to come alongside and help the students cook. Wi feels that this has made a huge difference. ‘There have been some nannies who have come in and helped. We’ve got one kuia and she’s a bit of a matriarch; she’s retired and just really loves what we’re doing so she comes in and supports us on Tuesdays.’
Wi explained that although it hasn’t just been down to their work, the bullying problem at Bream Bay College has dropped off significantly since they have been working in the school. Wi feels that the opportunity to help in the kitchen and serve the rest of the school gives the students a good community outlet and encouragement from external adults in their lives.
‘They come to school with all different kinds of loads; they come from different environments at home, sometimes with no parents or being looked after by their grandparents. Maybe there are challenging home lives. I want to help some of those ones feel okay about being at school.’
Close to home
Wi has been very aware that Bream Bay College is in his own community. ‘It’s about 35–40 minutes out of Whangārei, but it’s also practically in my backyard. I’ve always had a love and a yearning to work for my own community, my own hapu, my own iwi, my own marae.’ The community that the college serves is quite small, and Wi mentioned that he feels a sense of pride in his work when he sees the kids outside of school.
‘We’ll see them out and they’ll come up and say, “Hey, Matua Wi” and that just fills up my cup, because you know you’re having an effect on them … I feel so strongly, so passionately about being out there for our youth. You’ve got all these things affecting them in their lives, and they really are just children. They appreciate having another adult say hello and take an interest in them.’
After initiating hot soup and fry bread at Bream Bay College, Wi also helped The Salvation Army’s Aspire Kiwi Youth Development Programme come into the school each week. Aspire has been run in other schools that the team has worked in, but Wi thinks that Bream Bay College currently has the largest Aspire group in the country. ‘We have about 18 students, and I said, “no more” but they kept coming. I had to tell them to go back to class as there were too many showing up for two of us to work with.’
The school has also recently had approval to set up a community garden through The Salvation Army Jeff Farm Programme in the college, after they first intended to host it at Whangārei Girls’ High School.
Wi is been very thankful for the school’s support of their programmes. Bream Bay’s Principal Wayne Buckland purchased a deep fryer for the fry bread, and the school gives Wi and his team a budget of $150 a week to help them buy ingredients for the lunches.
Trusted to listen
Wi has since been invited on to the school’s Board of Trustees, an opportunity for which he is honoured. ‘There are little miracles that God can produce every day, like being invited onto the Board of Trustees. That’s God’s influence, when this grey-haired, 62-year-old Māori man with really dry jokes gets to sit at the table and speak into the running of the college.’
Wi is thankful for the ability to contribute and advocate for the students he works with. Being able to connect with young people in the space where they spend the most time each week is vital in speaking positively into their lives and reflecting the love of God to them.
‘When you’re young you want someone to listen to you, and that often means more than the answers you are looking for. To know that someone will listen to you is a principle of Jesus. He didn’t really say much, but people knew that he loved them. Mostly because of where he walked in his ministry. He preached in the synagogues, but he was mostly on the streets, among the people. Our young people are in school for most of the week, so we should really be getting in front of them there.’
Wi and his team have worked at five schools in the past six years, beginning with Kamo High School where they first started soup and fry bread lunches. They ran these lunches in other schools, including Whangārei Boys’ High School and Tikipunga High School, but some of these have stopped as the schools have since had lunches provided. The Aspire programme has also been brought to a number of the schools, starting with Whangārei Intermediate. Wi would love to see these supports in every school in their area and beyond, but mentioned that the team has had to reign him in a bit due to available capacity.
Working as God’s hands
In all of his work, Wi acknowledges a need for and a reliance on God, particularly when interacting with the struggles of young people. ‘We get hurt as human beings by trauma that we haven’t been able to travel through. This is when God comes in and makes us realise that we’re okay as we are, and one of my greatest desires for our youth is to teach them that they are okay as they are, with all they have.’
There can be a difficult balance in being open about the importance of faith while working in a secular schooling context, but Wi does his best to show the students their value through the eyes of God. He explains that with young people it can be easy to focus on what’s going wrong or what they need to do better, but Wi knows that they all have something to contribute and works hard to help the students see it in themselves.
Wi believes that he has a lot to offer the young people in his community. ‘There’s value in how old I am. I never thought I’d say that, but there’s value for that in the kingdom and in connecting with the youth. I believe that God wants me to be working with youth, but through his Spirit he allows me to better connect with them,’ he explained.
His life experience and the wisdom he has gleaned along the way have helped Wi to view his vocation as a sort of discipleship, knowing that the young people look to him as a role model. ‘I have to be the example of Jesus’ love, and there’s a passion burning in me when I ask as a Māori person, how can I be more of a light to them?’
A particular event at Bream Bay College recently stood out to Wi. The college’s te ao Māori Deputy Principal Junie Shelford had her moko kauae (traditional chin tattoo) completed at the school earlier this year. She wanted to normalise the practice and for it to be a learning experience for the rangatahi (youth) in the community. Wi was blown away by the support that all the school staff showed and noted that many of them commented later on the strength of the wairua (spirit) in the space while she had the moko kauae done.
There is a Māori proverb that comes to mind for Wi in his work across the schools in Whangārei and the significance of the wider community coming on board. The proverb is ‘Ehara taku toa i te toa takitahi, engari he toa takitini’ which translates to, ‘Success is not the work of an individual, but the work of many’. In all of the work, Wi sees this as the key to supporting their young people; there is only so much they can do in the schools a couple of days each week, without the wider care from the other adults in the students’ lives. Wi believes we need community and collective support when it comes to raising rangatahi, and that the input of other adults, including grandparents, teachers and neighbours, all contributes to young people having positive role models contributing to their growth.
Words Holly Morton