From streetkid to New Zealander of the Year

BY DAVID GADD
Last updated 05:00 04/02/2010
New Zealander of the Year Ray Avery
PETER MEECHAM/Stuff
CAN-DO KIWI: New Zealander of the Year Ray Avery at home in Auckland with his 15-month-old daughter Amelia.

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Sir Eion Edgar Senior NZer of the Year

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From a streetkid sleeping rough, Ray Avery has charted a movie-script life which was capped last night with being honoured as New Zealander of the Year.

The 62-year-old scientist and inventor dedicates himself to fighting poverty and ill health in the Third World.

The awards chief judge, former prime minister Jim Bolger, said: "Awards like these give us a chance to say thank you to extraordinary individuals, who inspire us as New Zealanders."

Mr Avery's early life was very different to last night's acclamation.

He was abandoned as a baby: "I got put into the orphanage for the first 14 years, moved around southern England in a kind of Dickensian labyrinth of bad stuff.

"And then I decided to take my life in my own hands and ran away and lived on the streets of London for about a year before I was picked up in a police raid and invited to go back into the education system."

That "invitation" was the making of him. He was taken under the wing of a group of Oxbridge professors who taught him science and how to dress, eat, speak, play bridge and tennis and dance.

"They gave this kind of hobo kid off the streets a social education and how to communicate."

By the age of 26 he owned a string of laboratories, drove a vintage MGA car – and loathed himself.

"I hated myself, I thought I was a real prick. I thought if I had money and I had a position that all of the orphanage debris would wash away and I would be accepted and ... that would make me happy."

So he left England and in 1972 ended up in New Zealand, which seemed like "instant home".

These days he is a successful businessman, and has produced low-cost inventions that have saved the lives of millions of the world's poorest people.

He developed intraocular eye lenses, which mean 30 million people will regain their sight by 2020. The lenses are made cheaply in factories he designed in Eritrea and Nepal.

He had teamed up with ophthalmologist Fred Hollows, who became known for his work in restoring eyesight for thousands of people.

But after Mr Hollows' death, from cancer in 1993, he was ready to call the project off for being too tough.

"[But] I had this kind of catharsis, that if anybody can do this, I can because I can survive anywhere, I can make anything work. I knew then who I was."

When he finally produced the first lens it sold for $5, compared with $360 charged elsewhere. He collapsed the price globally, revolutionising Third World eye care. There are now 16 million people using his lens implants.

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Of the award, he says it means he has won the respect of his countrymen and "I have finally found my way home".

INFLUENTIAL KIWIS

Senior New Zealander of the Year: Otago businessman Sir Eion Edgar, 65, chairman of sharebroking firm Forsyth Barr and a director of Martinborough Vineyard Estates. He was president of the New Zealand Olympic Committee and a keen supporter of sports and the arts. He has backed last year's 100% Pure New Zealand Winter Games, funded a Dunedin sports centre and is a trustee with the national Arts Foundation.

Young New Zealander of the Year: Aucklander Divya Dhar, a 24-year-old twin who has just qualified as a doctor and is a campaigner for policy change. She is committed to bringing attention to social injustices and climate change. A policy she wrote for the New Zealand Medical Students' Association to combat the problem of "doctor drain" has been adopted by the Government. It allows young doctors to be reimbursed up to $50,000 if they work in an area of need.

Local Hero Award: Sam Chapman, of Otara, has spent 40 years helping those who have lost hope and been rejected by mainstream society. He focuses on giving people the skills and motivation to turn their lives around. He has worked with the 30-member Notorious Chapter of the Mongrel Mob and Mark Stephens, known as the "Parnell Panther", who credit him with keeping them out of prison.

Community of the Year: Nelson's Victory Village, which includes a health centre and primary school. Judges called the village an unique example of community-based support achieving positive health, social and educational outcomes.

- The Dominion Post

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