Providing the push for kids who don't get it

04:02, Jul 21 2014
Eli Waikawa
BRIGHT FUTURE: Eli Waikawa says with the help of the organisation Taranaki Futures he hopes he can inspire kids to succeed.

Eli Waikawa describes his upbringing as a cross between film Once Were Warriors and talk show Jerry Springer. Now he's the poster boy for organisation Taranaki Futures. He talks to Susan Strongman about how he got to where he is, and how he hopes to help others do the same.

When Eli Waikawa moved to Taranaki his future did not look bright.

Gangs, drugs, alcohol and violence were part of his daily life.

As a youngster, he frequently found himself cleaning blood off his mother, after she had received yet another beating from yet another boyfriend.

When he was 13 he moved with his mum from Wellington to Taranaki to escape the violence but trouble followed them, and one day when Waikawa was at school his mother was hospitalised after being beaten with a dragon boat oar.

Now 33, Waikawa wants to help kids like he once was to live up to their fullest potential and to realise their future is not dictated by their past.


He is the poster boy for Taranaki Futures, an organisation that aims to map a clear line from education to employment for those who need direction. He hopes his story can help influence positive change.

In 2011, Waikawa was named Taranaki engineering apprentice of the year.

He finished an electrical apprenticeship about 18 months ago and signed on to an instrumentation apprenticeship in May 2013.

He hopes to finish in another year - completing a three-year apprenticeship in two years - and says time goes by fast when he's training and working.

Waikawa is married, has spent time living overseas, has travelled through Europe and has adopted his younger sister.

Quietly spoken and dressed in a stiff- collared, crisp white shirt, it's hard to imagine his past was, as he describes it, a cross between Jerry Springer and Once Were Warriors.

"I'm not too far away from completing my goals now," he says.

When he started out at Taranaki electrical company Wells, as a trades assistant at the Kupe gas plant, Waikawa says his plan was "to work my ass off and hopefully get an apprenticeship out of it".

But before that journey even began he had to learn how to study, taking a tertiary skills certificate course and getting maths tutoring.

He says his wife, Amanda, had to help him read through assignments as he didn't understand much the vocabulary.

"When he first started his electrical he would be up until between midnight and three in the morning and then he'd go to work, and he'd study every single weekend, all weekend, in order to just keep up with the other kids in class," Amanda says.

"It was heartbreaking to watch, because he was at the bottom of the class and doing so much work.

"If it was me I would have given up. It was inspiring for me seeing him spend that amount of time and there was no talk of him giving up."

There were times when Waikawa felt frustrated and deflated and sometimes he was picked on by his tutors.

He says it was hard for him to be at the bottom. At Spotswood College he had been captain of the first XV and the basketball team, but had never bothered with academics.

He says no-one, including himself, thought he could excel at anything intellectually.

"When I was in high school I wanted to do an apprenticeship but I was told I'd only be paid $5 an hour."

In those days, Waikawa says he only saw the low wage, not the bigger picture of the benefits of having an apprenticeship under his belt.

In hindsight he wishes he'd had someone to push him.

The first two years of his apprenticeship were the hardest, he says, and it was the support from his wife that kept him gong.

"I think it was more the fact that he had somebody who said you can do anything you want as long as you put your mind to it," Amanda says.

"Because of his upbringing, he hadn't actually had anybody that said you're actually capable of doing this."

Which is exactly what Taranaki Futures trustee and Waikawa's boss, Graham Wells, says the organisation hopes to achieve.

"If Taranaki Futures is able to encourage more people like Eli, there will be more people focused on career opportunities and less people assuming the best thing they can do is follow in their parents' footsteps."

Wells says Waikawa came to him wanting to do something better with his life.

"He heard that we were looking for utility workers on the Kupe project and knew that it could be a stepping stone to him getting an electrical apprenticeship, which is what he was after.

"He came on board not saying anything about wanting an apprenticeship, but just focused on doing a good job."

Wells says once Waikawa had established his mana he asked if he could do an apprentice.

Upon returning to work after a six- week holiday in Europe, Waikawa was given a piece of paper to sign.

"What's this," he wondered.

It was his apprenticeship.

"That was a good day," he says, smiling.

It wasn't an easy road that Waikawa took to get his apprenticeship.

He says if he'd had access to an organisation like Taranaki Futures when he was younger it would have changed his path dramatically.

"Just to have that support there - I reckon it would be highly beneficial for anyone coming out of high school."

One of Waikawa's earliest memories is of waking up as a child to go to the toilet and finding his mum's friend in the bathroom with a needle in her arm.

He also recalls sitting in his bedroom listening to a Walkman, waiting for whatever man was currently with his mother to finish beating her up. Afterwards, Waikawa would clean up his mum's blood and put her to bed.

When he was 8 he says he started smoking pot, which he was given for a laugh by the people who were supposed to be looking after him.

"It was just the way it was. All the kids were getting beaten up. Our mums were getting beaten up.

"I saw some bad things, but I guess that only makes you stronger."

When Waikawa was in his early teens, his mum took up prostitution.

"If there was a certain light on, or a tie around the door, I wasn't allowed in the house so I had to go wait out in the bush."

Waikawa once invited a girlfriend home, only to find the no-entry signal was up when they arrived.

The pair had to hide behind a bush until a man came out of the house and they could go in.

That same girlfriend stuck around for about six years and her family fell in love with Waikawa.

He was in his late teens when they took him in, showing him what a "normal" family was like - the polar opposite to what he was used to.

Waikawa says he saw how hard the father worked as a dairy farmer and the benefits that he got out of it.

He says he expected his girlfriend's mum to switch from being kind and loving, to "going off" at him, because that was what he was used to - but it never happened.

"She was always positive. I owe them a lot."

While living with the family, Waikawa did odd jobs - hay- baling, painting and pruning.

"Every job that I've had has given me experience. I've always taken little bits from past jobs and applied them to the job I have now."

When he turned 21 he met his now wife Amanda, who suggested he move to Australia with her.

Across the Tasman, he ended up in a light-making factory, at which he developed a fascination with the way things worked.

Still living in Australia, he applied for seven electrical apprenticeships and was rejected each time, before giving up and returning to New Zealand, aged 25, to work at a sawmill.

Not long after returning home, Waikawa's mother died of a meth overdose and he and Amanda adopted his 6-year-old sister, who is now at high school.

He left the sawmill to start his job at Wells in 2008, when he was 27.

Waikawa's boss at the sawmill told him the job would be there if he decided to return, but he has never looked back.

Wells says part of the challenge he hopes Taranaki Futures will help kids face is the idea of university not being the only measure of success.

"People are channelled by the secondary school system to go to university or 'other'. And the people that are channelled into the 'other' basket - there's less focus put on opportunities for them."

He says because of this, a talented group, comprised of kids like Waikawa once was, is missing out. "They might struggle at university or not go to university, but they are still capable of doing great things.

"Unfortunately that's been lost in the mire because the education system doesn't put the same level of focus on them."

He says Taranaki Futures wants to help these kids understand that there are other options available as far as opportunities go.

He hopes to get them excited about the opportunities that are available in Taranaki, driving them to work harder at school so they can present themselves to employers and be looked upon favourably.

"From an employment perspective, employers won't have to spend so much time trying to motivate people who are just there because they need a job, they'll have people who are more focused on the career opportunities that particular channel of employment can provide them."

He says Taranaki Futures aims to encourage people with a good work ethic who will work harder, enabling employers to focus on their business, which may lead to opening up more job opportunities.

Waikawa has had people tell him they think his story is inspirational.

Parents have told him they hope their own kids will turn out like he has.

He says if he can help inspire people through Taranaki Futures he will be happy.

"I like to help people. I tend to help someone else before I help myself."

For more information about Taranaki Futures, visit

Taranaki Daily News