Erina Wehi-Barton is a woman on a mission.
A mission to make a difference, to change lives, to give back. And a mission to pack her life with adventures along the way.
Erina – Ngāti Rereahu-Maniapoto – is one of 40 Home Based Learning (HBL) kaiako at Te Wānanga o Aotearoa.
She provides support to around 100 tauira studying at Levels 1-3 and living in an area stretching from Āwhitu to Whakapapa.
Over the course of the year, she’ll visit them every eight weeks, “or for those that are struggling or need extra support, every four weeks,” she says.
Whatever support tauira need, Erina provides.
“That’s especially so for whānau that are remote, with no access to libraries, support services, even wi-fi. Some who live out the back of Taumarunui have no services at all.”
Her tauira range from school leavers looking to build their foundation skills to whānau learning how to budget or others learning about tikanga.
“Everyone from school leavers to doctors, nurses, principals, teachers, kuia, kaumatua, the whole spectrum. Right down to the ones who say ‘we’re not home’ but you can see the curtains moving.”
There are four programmes available to HBL tauira: He Huarahi Ako, Papa Reo, Papa Whairawa and He Papa Tikanga, and Erina says she gets the most satisfaction seeing how tauira progress throughout their learning.
“One young mum studied Papa Whairawa and after that she was able to purchase a fridge without having to use a finance company because she’d learned how to budget. Another couple did Papa Whairawa and they could purchase a house. I feel like I’m making a difference.”
She says her tauira provide “heaps of stories of struggle”.
“When they get employed after completing a programme and then they can afford to give you a cup of tea. That sort of thing. It’s heart-warming.”
Seeing those changes is just part of the reason Erina loves her mahi.
“I get to be with my own people, help educate them and see them blossom. It’s the best job in the world.”
It also comes with its share of challenges, including unsociable hours, long distances and living out of her car.
“Some of my tauira are rousies in shearing gangs and we can’t see them until after 9pm. Others you can only see on a Sunday because of their work. Plus you have to coexist with the elements. Roads could be closed, some of the dirt tracks you go up you could easily get stuck. It’s seven days a week and not a 9-5 job because you have to work with the tauira. You have to create your own balance and take time out when you can,” she says.
However, when she does manage some time out, putting her feet up is the last thing on Erina’s mind.
She is a former social worker and mental health worker and aside from her busy work schedule, she’s also a busy mum, is studying towards her master’s degree and has just got back from completing the Great Wall Marathon in China.
In December she’s lining up in the Hawaii Marathon and then there’s the Big Five Marathon in South Africa in July next year before her biggest challenge – so far – tackling the trek to Everest Base Camp in November 2018.
“I do things like the Coast to Coast and other endurance events as well. I like to be present in the moment,” she says.
There’s also a distinctly Māori approach to her endeavours.
“A lot of triathlons are over our ara tūpuna, we’re kaitiaki of those tracks,” she says.
Aside from that, she is also aware of setting a good example.
“A lot of our people think they can’t do long distance events because they don’t look like long distance athletes but they can. At the end of the day you still get the same medal for finishing, the same satisfaction. It’s about role modelling for my whānau, hapu, iwi, my nephews, anybody really.”
As a positive role model, they don’t get much better.
“I left kura in Te Kuiti with no credits, got in with the wrong people, I was a young mum, drugs, that sort of stuff, so I’m able to relate to those tauira. It’s not just words, I’ve lived it and I want to give back.”
She says becoming a mother is what changed her life.
“And seeing so many of our whānau who are sick and unwell. There’s a better life out there but you need to work for it as well,” she says.
A key part of her role is forming relationships with her tauira and that’s important for recruitment, with word of mouth being the most effective means of encouraging tauira.
She says many of the relationships will last a lifetime.
“It takes patience and perseverance because you’re their support. It’s like being part of their whānau.”