The Kiwibank Local Hero of the Year will be announced this Thursday. The judges have had their work cut out for them choosing a winner from these finalists.
There are hundreds of New Zealanders across the motu who devote time to their communities. Those people who go the extra mile to make a difference – giving their time, expertise and awhi to those who need it most.
But to be a “Local Hero” is something reserved only for the very best of us. Epitomising what it means to make a significant change in people’s lives by being bold, challenging the status quo, and putting in the hard mahi – local heroes ensure people from all walks of life get the opportunity to thrive.
The Kiwibank Local Hero Award honours these very heroes and shines a light on all they do. This year, the three finalists for this award each have their own unique stories that truly capture the essence of dedication and impact. Their confidence and constant innovation has pushed the boundaries of what it means to be a leader, and each has had immeasurable impact on the lives of so many others.
Meet the three finalists for 2023 Kiwibank Local Hero of the Year.
Maia Mariner, a 17-year-old student at the University of Auckland, is the founder of Lazy Sneakers, a non-profit organisation aimed at providing shoes to people in need. With the help of her family, Mariner started a shoe bank, which eventually evolved into Lazy Sneakers. The organisation has since grown into a nationwide movement, so far providing over 10,000 pairs of sneakers to those in need.
“I started Lazy Sneakers at 12 years old after realising some of my friends couldn’t participate in basketball due to a lack of proper footwear. I told my parents, and they explained to me that there is an issue of material poverty in New Zealand. So, we decided to create something for those in need,” says Maia.
Mariner has grown a community around her since starting Lazy Sneakers – made up of those who have helped her along the way, and those she has helped, like children from a local school to which she delivered around 150 pairs of sneakers.
“We brought sneakers to a school and set them up like shopping aisles. The children’s eyes lit up when they realised the sneakers were free. They all filled their brown paper bags and wanted to take pairs home for their family members too,” says Mariner.
Now, Lazy Sneakers has even partnered with well-known brands such as Puma, who have generously donated new sneakers to support the cause.
Currently studying law at the University of Auckland, Mariner thanks her family for being the driving force behind Lazy Sneakers. She advises anyone who wishes to make a difference but is unsure of where to begin, to cultivate a robust support base and use the resources available to them – like social media – to spread the word.
“Based on my experience, you don’t need money or lots of resources to start making a difference. What’s important is having a strong support base. Use social media to share your message, build a following, and let the momentum guide you,” she says.
Born in Pakistan to Afghan parents who were seeking refuge from conflict, Ali Muhammad’s early years were plagued by the struggles of being considered a “fifth class citizen.” In 2015, Muhammad moved to Aotearoa, where he found a sense of belonging.
“New Zealand feels very much like home, and I’ve developed a strong passion for social equity, the environment and human rights. Growing up in Pakistan, I experienced the violation of many basic rights, which has fuelled my drive for justice and advocacy, particularly for underprivileged youth from refugee and migrant communities,” says Muhammad.
Having experienced first-hand the human rights violations and struggles of refugees, including lack of access to clean drinking water, healthcare, and education a flame was ignited within Muhammad. Here in Aotearoa, Muhammad has become a champion for underprivileged youth from refugee and migrant communities, using sports and education to empower them.
Through his community sports programme, SportsFest, Muhammad helps young refugees integrate into Aotearoa society – a transition he is familiar with.
Collaborating with local organisations, he also developed the Thrive Foundation, providing inclusive and tailored support to meet the needs of young refugees and rangatahi, particularly in the regions. The programme gives young people skills, confidence, and a sense of belonging.
“Sports have always been an important part of my life, and I believe they are a wonderful way to help integrate young people into the wider community. Through my community project, I’ve been able to introduce various sports to youth from diverse backgrounds, fostering connections, and promoting personal growth and confidence,” he says.
Muhammad also emphasises the importance of supporting young refugees’ educational aspirations. He believes that education is key to breaking cycles of poverty and marginalisation and he shares his own journey to inspire young people to pursue their dreams and achieve their full potential.
Dr Ellen Joan Nelson
Business owner Ellen Joan Nelson recently rose to prominence for her role in the evacuation of Afghan locals who worked with the New Zealand Defence Force. A former army officer who served in Afghanistan herself, Nelson was asked for help in getting a former colleague’s family to safety. With the assistance of Chris Parsons and Martin Dransfield, Nelson reached out to the government for support, and their collective efforts resulted in the successful evacuation of 563 Afghan locals to Aotearoa.
“The thing that kept me going was my team. They were just the most incredible group of people to work with. And the other thing that kept me motivated was the purpose – knowing that if we didn’t complete the task, some of these people were going to die,” says Nelson.
Nelson’s experience in the military has proven helpful in strategic thinking, communication, planning, and organisation, which she found useful in the evacuation project. She believes this collaboration serves to show the real good that can be done through collaboration.
“I think this [Afghan Mission] is a historic example of government and private citizens genuinely collaborating together to achieve a challenging task. It was about bringing everyone along on this journey and leveraging our diverse experiences, skills, and knowledge to make this happen,” Nelson says.
The mission to create a more equitable world goes beyond the Afghan evacuation project for Nelson. She believes that being privileged comes with a responsibility to help others and that a small team of committed individuals can make a significant difference in the world and inspire others to act.
Nelson also has a passion for changing how we work, which is fuelled by her belief that the traditional 9-5 work schedule conflicts with school hours and the needs of working parents. She advocates for work-life balance through her hashtags #belongingautonomypurpose and #workschoolhours. Her vision for improving work environments is a worldwide one – Nelson wants everyone to have the tools to prioritise work-life balance.
“Believe in your cause and be yourself, because being yourself is your biggest superpower. If you believe in something and want to make a difference in your community, just go for it,” she says.
The overall winner will be announced at the Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year Awards on March 30th.