“What! Why I am only finding out about this now?”
A 15-year-old Maria Atoa can’t believe what she is hearing and Mum Tofi’s tearful and smiling at the same time.
“It’s such an exciting and inspirational story,” says Rae of the Tauranga Budget Advisory Service. “It’s always wonderful working with people like Tofi, who are willing to act on good advice and new ideas and want to get ahead.”
What Maria’s gobsmacked about is her cash-strapped Mum had been slipping quietly out of the family home in the evening to attend financial competency courses – only spending what you are getting and not any more – and a housing assistance programme, about how to get your family into a home. And Maria didn’t know a thing about it.
“I had no idea,” says Maria. “She would tell me to look after the kids, feed them and tuck them up.” Maria was aware of the family’s dire financial circumstances. “But I wasn’t aware how deep it was.”
And the teenager is in awe. “I am enormously proud of this woman. I am staggered and so proud of her accomplishments. She is always amazing to us and I would never have another mum besides this Mum.”
The Weekend Sun first met Nuutofi Atoa – nicknamed Tofi – six weeks ago. She was broken, defeated and demoralised.
She had lost her husband – the provider, the financial organiser, the man who spoke for the Atoas, the family pillar. But now her life was disintegrating, she was holding down a part-time night cleaning job, running a family and struggling with the finances. Tofi became quiet and withdrawn – until she decided to seek help and take charge of her life again. Then she met Rae at the Budget Advisory Service.
“I really needed someone to be there” says Tofi. “Someone to listen when I poured my heart out.” Rae listened and then came six weeks of courses – shopping, budgeting, wants versus needs, a practical hands-on course.
“Now here’s a real awareness,” says Rae. “A real consciousness where the money is going, how it’s being spent and no credit cards. She is spending what she is getting and not a cent more.”
“I am so grateful to Rae – and humble, I don’t know what my life would have been like without her.”
And all the time Maria played mum to her three siblings. “I wouldn’t say that. I just stepped up when needed,” says Maria. “I was being a responsible older sister, a role model, what any good person would do.” At the same time Maria was studying for her school exams.
Then Tofi’s sister Malama set aside her family responsibilities in Samoa to assist the Tauranga family.
“That’s the culture, that’s the Samoan way,” says Maria. “That’s family.”
The money’s trickling in and the Atoas are getting back on track. “I’ve been able to take on more shifts because Malama can care for my little family at night.
“I have even taken on some full eight-hour shifts. Longer hours, more pay, less debt.”
And again a selfless Maria is chipping in. She has a part-time job at Burger King.
“I just wanted her to have a life of her own,” says Tofi. “Now she has some money of her own I want her to go and explore and do stuff with her friends, enjoy a teenage life.”
But no. “I give Mum at least half what I earn because I can see how hard it is being a single mum.”
Maria earns the minimum wage and depending on hours, she brings home a modest part-time income. “The pay that I get, well I don’t need that much money,” says Maria.
Last year, because of circumstances, the family had a difficult Christmas. This year will be different.
“There will be presents, there will be a Christmas dinner with my other two sisters at Mount Maunganui and Papamoa. But I don’t want a present, I just want to see my family happy and be thankful to the Lord for each day of my life.”
That is happy, grateful and proud.
“I would do the normal teenage thing and complain about where Mum was, what she was doing Mum and when she would be home,” says Maria. “But I am enormously proud of this woman. I would never have another mum beside this mum.”
And Santa has delivered early on another level for this family. They have qualified for a Habitat for Humanity house. The organisation gives people a hand-up to owning their own home. It’ll be built in Greerton early next year.
The Tauranga Budget Advisory Service is at 155 17th Ave, Tauranga South. Call them on 07 578 0969. They’re open from 9am-3.30pm.
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