A Santa with a full-face moko

Christmas trees and Ma¯ori San­tas are all part of a Dunedin re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion pro­gramme, writes Hamish McNeilly.

Sunday Star-Times - - News -

Christmas is a time for sec­ond chances, even for the in­va­sive weeds chok­ing some of the coun­try’s nat­u­ral land­scapes.

Those weeds are wild­ing pines, which are planted and grown in West Otago’s Blue Moun­tains, then cut and sold as Christmas trees by a group of ex-cons fundrais­ing for Dunedin’s Moana House.

Moana House has about 20 men on a year-long re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion pro­gramme, tran­si­tion­ing them from prison back to so­ci­ety.

‘‘We deal with peo­ple who have com­plex prob­lems, who need a lot of in­put and as­sis­tance to get back on track,’’ pro­gramme director Claire Aitken said.

Sales of the fes­tive tree kicked off this week, con­tin­u­ing a 31-year tradition of­ten marked by a Ma¯ ori Santa wav­ing at the dozens of buy­ers wait­ing each day.

The over-rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Ma¯ ori in prison meant the an­nual job of wear­ing the red suit and white beard re­sulted in their own unique an­nual tradition.

‘‘Some of our San­tas have had full-fa­cial moko, and no-one bats an eye­lid,’’ Aitken, in a nod to the furore over the re­cent Nel­son Santa pa­rade, said.

Each De­cem­ber, cut­ting and sell­ing Christmas trees has been the stal­wart fundraiser for the res­i­dents – usu­ally about 1000 are sold, start­ing at $10 a trunk.

Some give more for the sale, but those who can’t af­ford one don’t walk away empty handed.

‘‘We want every­body to have a tree,’’ Aitken said.

The Christmas tree gig re­quires a lot of prepa­ra­tion, and par­tic­i­pants are given first aid and chain­saw train­ing.

This year’s pro­ceeds would help pay for re­pairs to the truck that hauls the trees around. But the main pur­pose was to con­nect Moana House res­i­dents and the com­mu­nity.

The fa­cil­ity was ground­break­ing when it opened in 1987, and ‘‘still is now’’, Aitken said.

The pro­gramme, which in­cludes nine months’ res­i­den­tial care and three months’ af­ter­care, has a wait­ing list of more than 160 men from around New Zealand.

Aitken con­ceded the back­log would take years to clear, be­cause this was a real chance to turn their lives around.

For some it was as sim­ple as learn­ing to cook, or speak­ing in a group; oth­ers recog­nised the im­pact their up­bring­ing had on their life and their de­ci­sion-mak­ing.

Many of the of­fend­ers, Aitken said, were writ­ten off by so­ci­ety for crimes such as rape and mur­der, but the pro­gramme got tan­gi­ble re­sults be­cause the 25 staff there never gave up on them.

‘‘We take a com­pas­sion­ate ap­proach with­out be­ing wishy­washy.’’

They knew de­spite years of crim­i­nal­ity it was pos­si­ble to turn around a per­son’s life.

‘‘You have to do it in a very thought­ful way.’’

Some of our San­tas have had full-fa­cial moko, and no-one bats an eye­lid. Claire Aitken

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