What is next for Tommy Wilson after years at the coalface of poverty, homelessness and P in Tauranga

“I’ll always be the koro here.”

Tommy (Kapai) Wilson is holding that close to his heart as he retires tomorrow as executive director and chief imagination officer at Tē Tuinga Whānau Support Services Trust in Tauranga.

He has chosen November 11 as his sign-off date as it is believed to hold spiritual significance and it is also Armistice Day, symbolising peace. He will mark the occasion at 11am on the beach at Sulphur Point and hopes others will join him.

The 68-year-old says he’s stepping aside, not down. Sitting in his new office at Kura Waiora across the road from his old office, Wilson is not feeling melancholy about the end of his 11-year tenure. He is upbeat, cheerful and proud.

“I’m in the sunset years of my life,” he says. “People don’t realise this is a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week job.”

Tē Tuinga is a registered community not-for-profit trust and its history dates back to 1987. It was initially managed by Awanui Māori Women’s Welfare League and Whaioranga Trust. Under Wilson’s tenure, it has grown to be one of the largest providers of emergency and transitional housing in the Western Bay of Plenty.

It now manages two motels, two blocks of units with 31 rooms, and 15 transitional houses that can accommodate about 200 families and individuals including the elderly. They are at capacity and there is a waiting list.

Last year, about 4000 families, vulnerable people, and youth sought help from the trust as it worked in many realms such as prison reintegration, community youth services and education, remand facilities, social services, and advocacy.

In the beginning, the trust scrimped and saved and had to sell its van and close down an alternative education school. Wilson worked the first three years for free and says there were numerous ups and downs.

“But those hard calls had to be made, so we could reset and put Tē Tuinga on a tikanga kaupapa whānau pathway. That is what has got us where we are today, not one person.”

When Wilson took over the reins there were five staff, which has grown to about 80 including social workers, youth workers, advocates, and former gang members who had overcome adversity and jail to get back on track and help other prisoners do the same.

Asked to recall some highlights, he takes a moment to ponder what Tē Tuinga has achieved.

“There are many feathers to the korowai [cloak] of Tē Tuinga. I think most people just think we are looking after homeless people but we are much more than that.

“We put the lost and the lonely and the broken back together again. I learned how to harness hope. If we as a community, country, or planet can learn how to harness hope, we can make a difference.

“We can do something about the anxiety in our backyard.”

Keeping 200 families safe and fed every night gave him comfort, alongside looking after his colleagues who faced tough and often heartbreaking situations.

“We [staff] do things together, we eat together, pray together, sing together, and cry together. No one is alone.”

Wilson has been around the world three times and worked in 33 countries in his younger years. Back then, he lived in the fast lane and took “anything and everything you could put up your nose and drink or smoke and ingest”.

The accomplished author, poet and columnist has been drug and alcohol-free for the past 19 years and believes in second chances.

Many of those working for Tē Tuinga have been thrown a lifeline and Wilson says their contribution is invaluable because they have walked in the shoes of the people they help.

“We have a great filter and can sort the needy from the greedy.” The service helps those who want a hand-up, not a hand-out.

“Our style has enabled us to carry each other in troubled times. We have been through the perfect storm of poverty, Covid and the methamphetamine epidemic, which I believe has been driven by anxiety.

“What Tē Tuinga has offered and will continue to offer is hope.”

Wendy Gillespie, former chief executive of Ngāti Ranginui, is the new chief executive of Tē Tuinga.

“She comes with a strong governance role and a proven track record of bringing out the best from a financial perspective in organisations. Getting the balance of governance and tikanga Māori in sync is critical.”

As our interview comes to an end, Wilson has no time for sad thoughts. He will hold an advisory role at Tē Tuinga and “I’ll always be the koro here”.

“I don’t buy into sadness. There’s enough sadness out in the world. I’m going to celebrate. It’s a new era for Tē Tuinga. I’m feeling happier and relieved and at peace with myself than I have felt for a long, long time. It sounds selfish but I like this.

“I like this new direction I’m heading towards.”

Wilson says now he can spend more time playing golf which “saved his life” when he grappled with burnout early in his time at Tē Tuinga.

He has several projects on the go. He has just returned from France where he watched the Rugby World Cup and carried out research for a new documentary on Le Whānau, which is about how French Māori ended up in Te Puna and brought the Catholic faith to New Zealand.

Wilson hopes to put that together next year with the French Ministry of Culture and the New Zealand Ministry of Culture and Heritage.

In the meantime, he is putting the finishing touches on book No 33, Paperboy Writer, which chronicles decades of writing columns for the Bay of Plenty Times.

When I stand up to leave, Wilson suggests a photo in front of an artwork entitled Moemoea which signifies to dream.

“I’m a professional dreamer,” he says with a smile.


Public Interest Journalism