He’s got a way to go, although he has the movie star good looks, perfect teeth and a smile that would melt the hardest, coldest, steely heart.
“Told you,” yelps Krista Davis, who is part of the driving force behind the Live for More organisation. “You’re the thousandth person to say that. Incredible smile – Colgate.”
‘Colgate’ is 21-year-old Hoani Walker and a star graduate from one of Davis’ recent university of life type courses. If smiles were the sole criteria he would have graduated with a masters.
Live for More is a Tauranga charitable trust that uses surf therapy to reach troubled young men and empower them to turn their lives around. They’ve been caught up in a lifestyle of drugs, alcohol, crime, gangs, prison and violence.
Hoani could tick most of those boxes. And you could say Hoani was the best of a bad bunch – he graduated top of his Live for More course, he was the Tai Watea Warrior – waves of freedom warrior - he got the patu. The sea, the surf and the spume was a cure-all for Hoani.
“The moment I got up and surfed my first wave, I got a mega-rush, a real adrenaline rush.” He’s still riding that wave. “It’s not something I thought I would ever do. And it taught me to try things – try and you can accomplish anything.”
To understand where Hoani’s life is today, we need to know where he has come from. A proud Bay boy – he even wears ‘Tauranga’ in a flowing tattooed font across his eyebrow. He had a strict upbringing in Welcome Bay – “Strict in a good way because my parents didn’t want me getting into mischief like my peers, getting on the piss and smoking dope.”
Trouble was fun to the then 13-year-old and he ran away from home and straight into bother. “Crime - thefts and burglaries and stuff, stealing cars.” There’s an honesty tinged with a deep shame.
“Nothing to smile about,” he admits.
Then the big stuff. “On the way home to Welcome Bay from a party, we robbed a taxi driver and took his money.” At 17 he went to jail. And when he emerged from Mangaroa two and a half years later his parents were waiting for him. “They never stopped supporting me. Right through jail, they were there for me.”
On release he vowed to himself he would never go back. “I had a pretty strong mind-set, but obviously not strong enough.”
It was, by his own admission, dumb stuff and fuelled by an alcohol and drug addiction. He robbed a shop and on the way out pushed a lady over. His head goes down. The smile evaporates. “I am not very proud of what I did.” And he went back inside.
But now Hoani is a graduate – there’s no mortar board, no gown, no entry to the professions.
But success is a relative thing and surfing has brought enormous success and pride.
Four of the six graduates are now in full-time employment. Hoani works for a carrier. “I make sure people get their fridges, their furniture and a bed to sleep on.” The twinkle is back.
One young man, who’d never held a licence and had been disqualified for many years, now has his learner’s. One got his restricted and two more are sitting theirs. All six were supported to engage with Work and Income to get a legal entitlement.
And two are now out of the justice system and completed probation after years in the system, and in and out of jail.
“We believe every single one of these young men has a purpose in life and can change,” says Krista.
“Often they just need hope to see a better future is theirs if they truly want it.”
Hoani Walker has added motivation to want it.
“I am over that stuff now. I have a four-month-old son called Jerome. I remember him arriving.
“I was speechless, didn’t know what to say. I just wanted to hold him.”
He thinks he has sorted his life, has turned it around, but is realistic. “There are still heaps of hurdles in the way.” And there’s still work to be done around his temptations and associations with alcohol.
“I won’t lie, I have been around P since but I haven’t taken it recently.”
But now he’s got a job which is one he loves and a little boy, one he loves. He’s also got a minder and a mentor, Krista Davis, whom he says he loves like family. “Yeah I owe Krista.” Then Hoani Walker turns away and hooks into a big meat pie, some fuel for the big guy after a big day’s work. And it’s a chance to reflect.
“It just makes you want to get back out into the waves and stay there all day.”
Out amongst the waves and out of trouble.