20 April 2021 – As published on stuff.co.nz by Kate Green

Black bin bags flap in the wind, and a small group of foragers makes its way along Petone beach, as the youth of Te Whanganui-a-Tara Māori Rugby League use their time off the field for good.

Among the adults is club chairperson Rebekah Toman (Ngāti Maniapoto), one of four generations of her family to be involved with the club.

She was handed the reins by her father, the former chairperson, and her mother had been secretary. Toman’s son, and now two mokopuna played for the club too.

But the sport was just a vehicle. The young people who joined them were given more than a uniform in club colours.

Some new members wouldn’t know any te reo Māori, Toman said. “But by the time we’ve finished with them, they know their pepeha, and three karakia.”

Established in 1993, the not-for-profit aimed to develop pathways and opportunities for young people in a way that celebrated being Māori, through the game of rugby league.

The season culminated in a game in Rotorua, with teams divided by age, and whānau encouraged to come along for support.

Aside from teaching skills on the sports field, the ethos of the group was to educate young Māori about tikanga and gives them a support network to succeed in all aspects of their lives.

Sadly, Toman said, the majority of male prisoners in New Zealand were Māori. “They’re disconnected,” she said. This programme aimed to connect youth to their roots, and build responsibility and resilience. “Rugby league is just a vehicle.”

Cleaning up their whenua was the latest in that education. “It’s teaching them about the environment that we live in, planting those seeds early.”

Their day at Petone beach, their second cleanup, was a success. There were 27 members; five adults and 22 kids. “We managed to rack up eight bags of rubbish,” Toman said.

It was a way of caring for Papatūānuku, which provided an opportunity to teach boys how to treat women – their sisters, mothers, aunties, and friends. “And instilling their history in them, their whakapapa.”

Previously, players were sponsored by a luck-of-the-draw type process, where the sponsor picked a number which was assigned to a player. “It was too easy,” Toman said, so now they were working for their funds.

At their first cleanup, they’d collected 20 bags of rubbish from Wainuiomata Hill, and would be heading back there with another group of older kids to finish the job. Plenty of rubbish had been too big to move; there was even a car bumper.

And it wasn’t just about the kids. For some older Māori, hearing their children talk about their newfound knowledge reignited a spark of curiosity. “Their tamariki have planted that seed again.”

There were more than 180 whanau on their social media page, and their books were still open.

Players paid a $50 commitment fee to join the league, and from that point on the players’ uniforms and travel was subsidised, to lighten the load on families.

The league was keen to get sponsorship from local businesses for future cleanup events, and if anyone had a location in mind they should get in touch.