National | Environment

From homeless to lawyer, trailblazing journey of environmentalist māmā

Māori environment lawyer Kiri Danielle has spoken publicly about her experience with homelessness for the first time. Photo / Christel Yardley / Stuff

When Kiri Danielle’s three children sat her down in front of the TV to watch The Pursuit of Happyness​, Danielle instantly saw herself in the protagonist.

In the film inspired by a true story, actor Will Smith plays Chris Gardner​, a father left broke after a divorce, facing homelessness while completing a competitive, unpaid, internship at a stockbroker.

Danielle, of Ngati Kahungunu ki Wairarapa​, Ngati Raukawa ki Te Tonga and Pākehā descent, has been a TV personality, presenter, early childhood teacher, journalist, Global Goodwill ambassador and last year was admitted to the bar after graduating from law school.

But weaved into the years of hard work and success lied less vibrant and unstable times.

“My journey has been the best and the worst times of my life,” Danielle says.

In 2016, Danielle started her #CleanEarth movement, a mission to free papatūānuku​ (mother earth) of litter.

She visited various locations and live-streamed videos of her and her growing number of followers cleaning to “show people we can all pull our sleeves up and do our part”. The aim was to encourage people to stop and pick up litter, to discourage littering in the first place.

It came after Danielle collaborated with Māori Television ahead of the 2011 Rugby World Cup when she road-tripped around the motu to clean up ahead of the cup games, working with district councils of hosting centres.

She gained a following across the globe after a video of her pulling a couch out of a stream with her car and a rope was shared by the Kiwi Daddys Facebook group – which had 55,000 members around the world at the time.

Law school became Kiri Danielle’s pathway out of her homelessness and spiralling mental health. She was admitted to the bar in September last year. Photo / Supplied

But what many did not know about the staunch environmentalist was her struggle during that time to find a place to sleep, shower and eat.

She kept a brave face as thousands watched her videos, but meanwhile, Danielle was going through a divorce, struggling with the reality of becoming homeless.

An out-of-court agreement on the division of marital property eventually left Danielle without a home in 2016 and her mental health spiralled into what she called “situational depression”.

"I simply wasn't ready for it," she says.

It was “quite a fall” from a “picture perfect life”. After 10 years as a stay at home mother, eventually training and working in early childhood education to be alongside her children, her life “collapsed”.

Scared of the court system and after hearing of the emotional turmoil it had been for others, Danielle said "it felt easier for me to step away – I chose my hard”.

But not understanding her rights left her vulnerable, she says.

“Had I known what I know now, things may have been different.”

Danielle spent the best part of two years couch-surfing, staying with friends and family with stints in between when she lived out of her station-wagon, on a foam mattress laid across the flattened back seats, sleeping under a tarpaulin with no heating, and clutching her keys for safety while she slept.

Shame and embarrassment stopped her from seeking help, although her followers – complete strangers she had never met – could see her struggling beneath the surface and would reach out.

Kiri Danielle was appointed Māori Environment Commissioner last month by independent Māori Climate Commissioner Donna Awatere Huata. Photo / Supplied

“There are so many good people out there,” she says. “I wasn’t looking for sympathy, I was embarrassed. I just wanted to carry on and fight through it.”

Salad sandwiches from the bakery became her “best friend” and public toilets were her place of transformation.

“I would wash in a public toilet with the basin and look around to see who saw me go in. It felt a little bit like superman because you walk in and then you walk out and you look like a different person, but I had to pull myself together.”

Danielle hit rock bottom when she began losing sight of a way out of her situation, heartbroken from missing her children. “It was a separation I wasn’t prepared for.”

It was in a small rest area in the middle of winter that suicide crossed her mind. But reading about the hurt it would cause her tamariki snapped her out of the dark mental space.

Not long after, while living in Tokoroa, her 18-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son visited for her birthday to find their mother curled up on the ground next to a mattress, her belongings contained in two suitcases beside her.

Kiri Danielle and her daughter whose piercing words became her turning point. Photo / Supplied

“I was just weeping,” Danielle says.

“When my daughter saw me, she just burst into tears … I still remember her face, tears streaming down her cheeks, and she said to me, ‘mum, you’re weak, you’re weak mum, why don’t you go to law school and get strong’.”

Within a week, Danielle was enroled in law school at Waikato University. She started her degree in 2018.

However, the stress of her volatile situation persisted and there were days she had to dig deep to find petrol money to get to her lectures, while McDonald's wi-fi was her saviour to get assignments across the line.

She recalled having to stop every 10 minutes to lie down and cry, to get back up and wipe her tears and keep going. “I remember a whole assignment I did like that.”

Danielle spent days without sleeping during exam week but education and law school became her pathway out that she was determined to stay on – and ultimately her saving grace.

Danielle has been an early childhood teacher, TV personality and presenter, journalist, and continues to be a staunch environmentalist, with a mission to make papatūānuku litter free. Photo / Christel Yardley / Stuff

It wasn’t the first time she had started law school; the first time being when she was 17 before she dropped out. But this time, she would see it through.

Danielle moved into a friend’s flat in Rotorua at the end of her first year. When she began picking up a relief teacher job in an early childhood centre in her final year, it allowed her to become independent and move into her own flat.

“My first night in my own home, I put on music and I danced around the lounge,” she says.

“It was such a moment for me... I looked in the mirror at myself and I was happy at the woman looking back at me.”

The look on her children's face as they sat at the back of the courtroom as she was admitted to the bar in September was a moment she wouldn’t forget.

“Their eyes when they saw me as a lawyer, it was beautiful.”

Her daughter also enroled into law school, completing her diploma last year.

Kiri Danielle being filmed for TV Rotorua where she was a newsreader. Photo / Supplied

“Law school taught me my rights, and it’s helped me empower others in their own rights,” Danielle says. Her top grade was achieved in family law.

"I'm certain what happened was actually a blessing in disguise; I lost a home, but I found unshakeable inner strength, and that got me through law school."

Danielle has no intention of dwelling on her past and revisiting her own experience, even while she has more tools and knowledge to have perhaps gone about the divorce differently.

Instead, she was determined to use her experiences to better the lives of others.

“My homelessness evolved me to someone far more compassionate, far more wise and far more relatable,” she says.

She works with the Te Arawa Education Task Force to better educational outcomes for Māori tamariki, which felt right because she believes education is the key to empowerment.

“For me, education is everything.”

Last month, she was appointed to be the first Māori Environment Commissioner for the independent Māori Climate Commissioner, Donna Awatere Huata.

Danielle hopes that by sharing her story, she can empower others to continue. Photo / Christel Yardley / Stuff

“The appointment was because of the love I’ve shown for papatūānuku,” Danielle says.

She spent a lot of time in nature during her toughest years while encouraging others to be kaitiaki (guardians) too.

“When I had nothing else, I had the flowers and the wind on my face.”

She continues to work on the ground, cleaning the environment, but now has more tools to advocate for papatūānuku, including with her knowledge in environmental law.

“It makes a wonderful comeback story,” she says, though it isn’t one she can tell without tears.

“If I ever need motivation, I just remember those hard times and determination never to go backwards again. Those darkest moments can become your most powerful fuel.”

Her goal is to buy her own home, but for now, her children visit at her stable housing, for movies and roast dinner. “They are so proud of me.”

Watching the Pursuit of Happyness, on her own couch, in a house she rented, with her children, she could feel their eyes on her.

“I could see, for them, their mum was an embodiment of overcoming obstacles and rising above them to a powerful place.

“It’s been a traumatic journey but the end destination is me being someone my kids are proud to say is their mum.” And that made it worth it, she says.

Danielle has other study planned: a diploma in psychology and mental health, and she plans to write children books, as well as having an autobiography in the pipeline.

The challenging years were like being in the thick of flames, she says, but now she feels she is out the other side. It felt right to share her story.

“I’m going to be a firefighter … I don’t want to stop now, I’ve got so many buckets to give.”



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