Tagata Pasifika The Pacific voice on New Zealand television since 1987

Moana Pasifika rugby players give local food bank a helping hand

Soana Aholelei | Reporter / Director | Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air

With Christmas fast approaching, it’s likely to be a tough time for many in our community. In West Auckland, the Village Community Services Trust – which runs a food bank – teamed up with players from the Moana Pasifika rugby team to deliver some early Christmas cheer.

This is what Santa looks like island style: rugby legend La’auli Sir Michael Jones in an ‘aloha shirt’, driving a forklift.

Sir Michael Jones and Lady Maliena are busy setting up for the first day of their Christmas run and, before you know it, in walks Santa’s elves dressed in Moana Pasifika Rugby uniforms.

With a prayer and welcome, they set to work packing boxes of food and Christmas presents.

“This is the easiest part. It’s all the planning beforehand,” says Lady Maliena.

“So it’s organising which families we’re working with and also getting the product in. Everyone knows that there’s delays and everything, so it’s just having to organise in advance.”

The Village Community Services Trust in Avondale runs a food bank during the year, thanks to donations from the community.

food bank La’auli Sir Michael Jones and Lady Maliena with Moana Pasifika players and comedian Tofiga Fepulea’i giving a helping hand. Photo: Soana Aholelei, Tagata Pasifika
La’auli Sir Michael Jones and Lady Maliena, who run the Village Community Services Trust, with Moana Pasifika players and comedian Tofiga Fepulea’i giving a helping hand. Photo: Soana Aholelei, Tagata Pasifika

“At the moment we’re very grateful. We’ve had amazing support from iconic Kiwi companies, foundations like the Milford Foundation who have been really behind this Christmas drive. They’ve been really putting in the funding so we can go buy presents,” says Sir Michael.

For the next couple of weeks, they’ll be trying to bring some of that Christmas spirit to a community that’s been living under the Covid cloud.

“Some of our families are stuck at home, and they’re not able to get out. So many of us have missed birthdays, anniversaries, different things during lockdown,” says Lady Maliena.

“But it’s really sad if they miss out on Christmas, so we’re just trying to take Christmas to them. So there’s presents and treats but also food.”

Having Moana Pasifika rugby players along as volunteers is also a blessing.

“It’s been tough on the team getting together because of lockdown. But they’ve been training hard,
and this team is about the people; it’s the peoples team,” says Sir Michael, who’s also chair of the team’s governing board.

food bank volunteers: moana pasifika rugby players
Photo: Soana Aholelei, Tagata Pasifika

Moana Pasifika player Anzelo Tuitavuki says: “It’s awesome being with the team and doing this. It just shows that we love our people, we love our community.”

Fellow teammate Christian Leali’ifano agrees: “I think it’s such a truly humbling experience to be here and involved. We probably don’t see this every day. Michael explained earlier how hard they’ve been working to get out to our communities and our families that are in need.”

Also helping out is comedian Tofiga Fepulea’i, who’s been working out in the community. He’s seen the struggle first-hand and knows it’s no laughing matter.

“It’s really important. I think, I guess, it’s my way of showing love for our people,” he says.

“Being from Wellington, you can see the massive difference of what our people have had to go through here in Auckland. So it’s nice to actually be a part of it and understand what they’re going through.”

food bank volunteers: Tofiga Fepulea'i
Photo: Soana Aholelei

Sir Michael adds: “It’s really tough out there, unbelievable. We’ve seen an avalanche of people who would never normally come in to a food bank, and that’s been really concerning. But it is what it is, sadly.

“So we’ve just had to make sure to do what we can to support and to bring hope.”

“For some families, it might be their only gift or their only treats,” says Lady Maliena.

“If we can just do that little bit to make people’s Christmases special, then I think that’s a blessing to us and those who have helped us to do it.”

Cancer survivor and ex-Wallaby Christian Leali’ifano is helping lead the way with words of support for those doing it tough at this time.

“It’s been a hell of a journey for myself and my family. I’m definitely aware of those who haven’t had the same outcome as I have, and I feel truly, truly blessed and grateful,” he says.

“I guess my message to families is to stay strong.”

food bank run by sir michael jones and lady maliena at the Village Community Services Trust
Photo: Soana Aholelei, Tagata Pasifika

With Christmas just around the corner, help is only a click or a phone call away. The Trust can be accessed through its Facebook page, where there is an online booking form for support. And just maybe, Elves in rugby uniforms will be spreading some Christmas cheer in your neighbourhood.

“We just want to see a smile on those kids’ faces and the whānau faces. We love our food, so a big food hamper and some presents, some mea’alofa, will go a long way,” says Sir Michael.

Christian smiles: “It just fills my heart with joy that there’s people out there in the world giving back to our people. We’re playing a small part today, and hopefully people can continue to do that — care for each other and help each other through this really difficult time.”

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