Featured Volunteers

Kiriata Matthews

Ruby Nyika meets volunteer Kiriata Matthews, a volunteer for Te Rauawaawa Kaumatua Charitable Trust.

Kiriata Matthews says you feel the wairua as soon as you walk through the carved gates.

“It’s there, it’s always there. It never disappears,” she says, referring to a tangible, loving spirit. Inside Rauawaawa, on a Friday morning, Matthews weaves through a network of walking frames and handbags on the way to her guitar at the front of the room.

A stream of well-dressed kaumātua trickle through the doors and into their seats. The place is filled with the smell of a cocktail of perfumes and the faint hint of roasting meat from the kitchen.

Every step, Matthews will catch someone’s eye and is promptly enveloped into flurries of kisses and long embraces. If she dared to skip someone, she might be poked by a walking stick.

No-one calls her by her first name anymore. She is simply known as Ma. It’s been almost 11 years since Ma and her husband Eruiti Matiu, otherwise known as Pa, stepped through the gates of Rauawaawa Kaumatua Charitable Trust, its headquarters in Frankton, Hamilton. She is the mother there, a chief volunteer who has dedicated the last decade of her life to improving the well-being and protection of kaumātua (respected elder).

Rauawaawa, a non-profit organisation established by a group of kaumātua in 1997, now has over 600 kaumātua on its database. It works to enhance quality of life, provide health and social services and equip kaumātua with a culturally sensitive support system and its vision is to wrap around the kaumātua like a korowai, a traditional Māori feather cloak to keep them warm, protected and safe.

Ma is on the Kotahitanga committee that coordinates social events such as singing, exercises, dancing, crafts as well as bigger events such as the kaumātua Olympics. On Friday mornings she leads a singing service after a karakia, later followed by dance exercises and a raffle.

The room is a mighty blend of decibels as a team of kaumātua strum away at instruments at the front of the room. Some of the kaumātua are on their feet swaying and singing, while others sit quietly, soaking up the throbbing energy.

One of the kaumātua, Roy Manukau, known as Uncle Roy sits at the front of the room in a serious suit, tapping his foot to the beat of Hey Good Lookin’. He says Ma’s singing is something special.

“You’ve never heard anything like it,” he says.

In 2015, Ma was awarded the Ministry of Health’s Maori/Pacific Volunteer of the year for her services to the organisation, where she arrives at 9 in the morning and doesn’t leave until the evening, when all the work has been done, from Tuesday to Friday. She has been trying to cut back her time volunteering for three years now, finally changing from four full days a week instead of five at the start of the year.

At almost 80-years-old, Ma herself is a kaumātua. She has an easily summoned smile, a talent for yodelling and a high-pitched laugh that turns heads.
She has eight children, 39 grandchildren and 62 great-grandchildren. On her days off she looks after her great-grandchildren. A lot of the kaumātua do, she says, shrugging it off.

Her skin belongs to someone 20 years younger, thanks to a skincare regime of soap and water. Once she tried an anti-ageing cream that her niece Missy brought in and it burnt her cheeks. “I said take your rubbish back!” she says, giggling.

Donna Tilyard Davies, the 17-year-running Administration manager and Supports Services Manager of Rauawaawa, more commonly known as Sweetie, was the first to call them Ma and Pa. “It was my sister and I, we asked Ma and Pa to be our surrogate Mum and Dad,” Sweetie says. “Because our parents had long gone and we always felt the loss of them. They evoked the same feelings as what I had for my parents.”

“One day when we were standing talking and I just looked at the two of them and I said, ‘will you two be our Mum and Dad?’ And they took me seriously. Then they came back about a week later. They pulled me to one side, said it would be an honour.”

Soon, everyone else was calling them Ma and Pa, too.
Now Matthews is the Ma who organises birthday celebrations, the Ma who listens and the Ma who tells off her kaumātua when they misbehave.
“Sometimes they get very noisy and I say, ‘children did Mama say you can speak?’” Ma says.
Pa passed away in 2014. For a long time afterwards, Ma would turn to tell him something, only to find empty space.

Matthews had noticed a change in Pa in his last few months and thought it might be time for them to step down. Pa’s stubbornness quickly overturned the idea. “He goes ‘I’m all right,’” Ma says. “He just didn’t want to finish.” Ma prayed, wanting to know how bad it would be to live without Pa. She needed to know how she could be okay without her headstrong husband.

She says she saw a vision one night on her way back from the hospital, after Sweetie’s husband had passed away.
Her vision exposed her to Sweetie’s pain and helped her to prepare for the pain of Pa passing.
“For me I saw how painful it was and the pain she must have going through at that time,” Ma says. “I got home and I couldn’t even eat.”
“I believe from that time to the time he passed, I was being prepared for it,” she says.

One week after Pa’s passing, Matthews was back working at Rauawaawa with her kaumātua whanau. Everyone felt the hole that Pa left. Most people thought Ma should take more time off. But Ma wasn’t having it. “They were crying and all that and I didn’t want that. I really didn’t want it,” Ma says.

Ma couldn’t stay in that dark place. “I felt in me that if I stayed in that area, I’d surely fall away myself,” Ma says. “But if I come out and just be who I am, who I really want to be, I’d be all right.”

On most days, Ma can still be found bustling around Rauawaawa, with a cuddle, a kiss and cheeky comment made-to-order.
Some days she will run crafts for the kaumātua, some days speakers come to talk about issues relevant to older people, some days they take trips together. There is almost always kai. Sweetie and Ma agree that some of the most important bonding takes place over a meal.

She is thinking about stepping down from her role at Rauawaawa. Ma says if she does finish she will remain a part of the Rauawaawa whanau, towards whom she is fiercely loyal. But she is also tired.

Since 2014, she has come close to finishing at times. But Sweetie says she knows Ma won’t feel okay stepping down until she knows there is the right person to take over. Ma agrees. She says she won’t leave until she feels she can pass the mantel. She will know the right person as soon as they walk through those gates.

To become a volunteer, or get more information, visit volunteeringwaikato.org.nz, or phone 07 839 3191.

Ruby Nyika is a Wintec journalism student

PHOTO CREDIT: Angus Templeton

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