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Christmas elves

Pera Barrett started collecting Christmas presents for disadvantaged children at one Porirua school in 2014 and his kindness spread like wildfire. Teacher Lester Mohi has seen the positive impact it has had on the whole community.

Pera

I saw a lot of poverty growing up in Otaki but one thing I have learned is how many people don’t realise what child poverty looks like in New Zealand -- that there are kids down the road who can’t afford books when they start school each year. Poverty is a few streets away.

I got the idea for Shoebox Christmas because a friend was doing something similar in Auckland. The guideline for donors is to literally fill up a shoebox. Most people think, absolutely, I can do that – then they go into shops and come out with three or four shoeboxes worth of awesome things.

A lot of people who don’t have kids, it’s their first chance to go into a toy shop and browse the LEGO section. I have seen guitars and skateboards turn up, and I don’t want to stop that because of some arbitrary shoebox restriction.

Our first school was Glenview Primary, a decile 1 school in Cannons Creek. I had done a few fundraisers for them; I had shaved off my dreadlocks and made money to buy guitars for them. I knew how invested the teachers were and how hard they were trying to make a difference.

That first year I realised that there were more people who wanted to help out than there were kids at this school. The next year I added another school to the list and the same thing happened -- I realised there were more people who wanted to lend a hand than there were kids across both those schools. I reached out to women’s refuges around Wellington and added them to the mix. It grew every year through word of mouth.

Each year the process needs to change to keep up with the increase in tamariki (children) and adults. The first year I used a spreadsheet and Facebook to organise everything, the next year I moved on to an automated mail system, and the year after that a friend built a bespoke software system.

I spend an hour each night and most Sundays working on Shoebox Christmas and then there are three 40-hour weeks spread across the last three months of the year. I have a full-time job, a wife and children aged 5 and 2, and I am a rapper and writer, so I get up pretty early in the morning. There’s a positive feedback loop there -- I enjoy it, it’s positive. I feel like it’s something good I’m doing. I have a proactive approach to my happiness. I do the stuff that brings me happiness.

Lester

I’ve been at Glenview Primary since 1996. At the moment I teach Years 4 to 6. As a decile 1 school we’re quite often reliant on patronage and support from outside. Often funding is based on roll size and we’re a small school, so we are disadvantaged in that way as well.

Kids are really perceptive. If things aren’t equitable they will react. If they notice others around them are getting presents and they aren’t, the way they feel about themselves and their families is tainted by having stones in their hearts.

We build Shoebox Christmas into our end of year protocol and try to bring the parents into it. We often get Pera to come out here and watch the children open their gifts, which is so nice to see. His daughter Huhana was the Christmas fairy last year in her regalia, it was so cute.

This year we have used Shoebox Christmas as an incentive for children to come to the end of the year concert and perform. If you want your present, you have to come sing!

Whanau (family) are very humbled and very grateful for the support they are given, especially at Christmas time when there is pressure to spend and have extravagant gifts to give. This is a time of year when we celebrate our leavers, our Year 6 children who will go onto intermediate, and as a mainly Polynesian community there are a lot of get-togethers. It can be hard on parents, budget-wise.

Pera knows our kids pretty well. We make a list of the children’s interests and likes. They’re supposed to receive shoeboxes but I have seen packing crates coming in filled with presents -- the generosity is amazing.

To take part next year, click here and sign up.