I'll never forget the first time Steve Farrelly crossed my path. To be fair, I was warned.
"You're about to meet my client," said my husband. "He's, erm ... pretty unique."
A larger-than-life character turned up, full of politically incorrect humour and blokey jokes, and I thought: "Who is this loud, possibly slightly offensive man and why is he here? I hope he doesn't stay long."
Little did I know that this man would help change the fortune of an entire school and its surrounding community, inspiring individuals and big organisations alike to help him.
When Prime Minister John Key chipped in with Government money this week for Weet-Bix-and-milk breakfasts in low-decile schools and praised those communities who were already stepping up, he was talking about people like Farrelly. In just three years, this former police officer - who has seen his fair share of murder scenes over 20 years - has sparked a revival which began with a small breakfast club and grew into a network offering everything from parenting skills to sports coaching.
Farrelly grew up in a state house in Auckland. "We weren't destitute but there wasn't a lot extra to go around," he says. "I guess it was when I went into the police that I got my first taste of real poverty. I volunteered to coach a rugby team in a decile-one school. If I look back now, the seed was probably sown way back then."
His children have made it grow. Daughter Claire went to work at the Dream Centre in Los Angeles, feeding 30,000 homeless a week. Inspired by her, his son Gary did a similar thing in St Louis. "When I went to visit Gary in the States, I saw what could really be done and knew that eventually I would do something here. I just needed to find the right people and place," says Farrelly.
That place ended up being Randwick Park School, a decile-one primary school in Manurewa. Farrelly was helping a friend get rid of some surplus school books and found out the school might need them.
Associate principal Felicity Oberlin-Brown clearly remembers her first interaction with Farrelly: "Here was this very loud, direct, heart-of-gold character who turned up with these books and said, 'I want to help, what do you need me to do?' We were blown away.
"Turns out he was the answer to our prayers. We had been toying with the idea of a breakfast club because many kids were being kept at home when their parents couldn't afford to make school lunches for them. We wanted to be able to say, 'send them to school, don't worry, we will feed them'. That needed to start with breakfast so they could function through the day."
And so it began, with eight kids on day one and growing steadily as word got out. "My training in Rotorua came in handy as the only communication was raised eyebrows - they never spoke a word to me that first day!" laughs Farrelly.
"From the first day I saw them, I knew I didn't care what their stories were, or that I was culturally very different to them. I just knew I had to show them love and consistency. I didn't need to be all PC - I just had to be me, the nerdy white guy who couldn't relate but would never give up on them."
Sanitarium and Fonterra had sponsored supplies two days a week through the Kickstart Breakfasts programme, but Farrelly and his wife soon realised five days' worth of food was needed, and so funded the other three days themselves. Steve's bull-in-a-china-shop personality forged an unlikely bond with the kids quickly. "I couldn't remember all their names so gave them nicknames: Princess, Shorty (and Shorty's brother, Shorty Shorty), Poke-eye. I nearly died laughing when they asked me one day, 'Are you white, Steve?' I realised they didn't see colour or age at all. From then on I was known as Uncle White!"
From the initial eight pupils in the programme, numbers soon grew to at least 30 children a day. The kids realised this was a safe haven, especially when Farrelly bought them all a king-size block of chocolate on their birthdays. They started to tell him their home stories.
"I had to hold back tears so many times when I heard about the conditions these little kids were living in. But working with the [school-based] social worker meant I actually had the power to help."
Oberlin-Brown says life is hard for many local families but pride can prevent them from asking for help. "Both parents are often working insane hours for low wages, and rents are on the rise by the week. Power has gone up, as have groceries, and it's a real struggle to pay the bills, leaving little or nothing for food for the children.
"All it takes is one car repair or medical bill to put them out for months on end. Tension and stress are rife and it's not a happy place for kids to grow up in. I'm not so naive not to realise that in some cases there is drinking, drugs and bad choices involved, but often these people are caught in cycles of despair."
Farrelly provided Randwick Park and social workers with access to such kids, as they would tell him things they would never tell the school. Once a family had been referred to a social worker, he would ask them what the family needed.
Through an email or social media, Farrelly would put a call out to people who had heard the stories and wanted to help provide what was needed - clothes, food or furniture. Much to his astonishment, the call was answered almost every time.
One day the social worker discovered a family who had recently fled domestic violence. They had only the clothes on their backs, were hungry and were sharing two mattresses on the floor. Farrelly asked his friends if anyone had spare beds. By the end of the day, through all our contacts, we had found a bed for each room and clothes for all. Farrelly was out with a van to collect the next day.
"It was mind-blowing" he says. "I guess I never realised how much stuff people had lying around. Times are tough and people can't always give money but they can give things, especially if their families no longer need them. I think people are quite overwhelmed by the amount of charities needing help, but when you tell them exactly what their spare items or donation of food or money will do, they find it easier to give.
"I have so many amazing stories, especially round Christmas time when all my networks swung into action to make sure all 80 under-9s at breakfast club got a present, specifically chosen for them. Many of those kids wouldn't have got anything for Christmas otherwise. I felt like Santa Claus!"
As the programme grew, change started to happen at Randwick Park. Once immediate needs were dealt with, the social worker would work with the families and Government agencies to make sure they stayed above the poverty line. The conditions were strict - if they didn't take the advice and follow it, they were off the books.
The school was amazed at the results. "The truancy officer and I couldn't believe the drop in absenteeism, sickness and bad behaviour." says Oberlin-Brown. "Feeding them, giving them a safe happy place and helping their families was making an unbelievable difference to life at school for many of our children."
Better still, Farrelly started to see the first of his "Milo kids" - graduates out of breakfast club who now just popped in for a drink and a chat. "The Milo kids are our biggest achievement to date. I love these little guys, but I want to see them for a Milo, not because they are starving. We still have 40 kids (in breakfast club) most mornings but it's not the kids we started with. They are constantly moving out as new ones come in."
Organisations came on board as the word spread. Schools were some of the first: Elim School, Bayfield School, St Kentigern College and Farm Cove Intermediate. "It was unbelievable - well-heeled families from these schools turning up with carloads full of clothes and food for these South Auckland families in need." says Farrelly.
Churches started donating food for food parcels as well as filling other needs as they arose. One school parent, who owned the local New World, started to donate food to help feed families. St Kentigern volunteered to coach Randwick Park's rugby and netball teams and help with online maths learning. Service co-ordinator Mark Robinson says the school has really valued the opportunity for many reasons. "It's not just what our students give but what they get back. They gain an understanding of diversity and improve their coaching skills. It works for everyone."
Business and large charity groups have since taken over some of the financial burden of the breakfast club (Manukau drive-through coffee franchise Muzz Buzz supplies margarine and Milo; New World provides cereal and food credits along with Hubbards, which stepped in after reading an article in the Herald). The Lion's Club of Bucklands Beach sponsored Garden to Table to get kids growing vegetables; Rotary Epsom sponsored the Sports Academy for the next three years.
Thanks to Farrelly's contacts, a sponsored walk around Manukau Heads raised $8000 and paid for a Crackerjacks Kids programme, which uses game play to teach essential character traits and life skills.
And it wasn't just about helping the kids. A parenting seminar hosted by Pio Terei, in conjunction with The Parenting Place, drew more than 300 parents, half of them men - a first in the history of school events. Regular classes continue now, with more than 30 parents turning up each week.
The Randwick Park Breakfast Club has, in three short years, become far more than a place to get breakfast. It's now a vehicle to get a food parcel, clothes and household items, if your family need it, as well as a platform for further education, tutoring and sports coaching.
And no one is more shocked than Farrelly himself. "My biggest learning has been that if you see a need, don't worry about how you're going to fill it, just get on and do it. I never knew where the money or support would come from, but it always turned up and I had to learn to put my faith in the fact it would."
So what next? "My dream is a commercial kitchen to start teaching people to cook cheap meals and the bigger picture is for this whole accidental situation to be replicated around the country."
He's starting with Glen Innes School, which asked for help after hearing the Randwick Park success story. Farrelly and principal Jonathan Hendricks are aiming for a similar mix of iniatives - including breakfast club, sports programmes and garden to table - with help from local schools and businesses.
"It is great that the Government is stepping in but we need to help our own communities too. That's the way life used to be and somehow we've lost track of that," says Farrelly. "I hope people can look at what has happened at Randwick Park School and be inspired to find the people around them who need help.
"I'm living proof that you don't need a perfect plan. Desire can go a long way and if you make the first move, others will soon jump on board."
10 things you can do to help in your neighbourhood
1. Call your local Citizens' Advice Bureau and find out which organisations help families in your local area.
2. If your child attends a high-decile school, see if the school would like to partner a low-decile school.
3. Talk to one of the organisations who need help, and do a collection around work (tinned food, clothes, shoes, blankets, books) according to what they need.
4. See if your company produces anything that could be helpful to families in need and talk to your boss about donating.
5. Contact your local churches to see if they have any community aid programmes.
6. If your school has a Breakfast Club, contact them directly and see if they know what their children's struggling families require.
7. Find a cause and start a Facebook group of like-minded friends. As new and different requests arise, post them on your page and use collective power to help source needed items.
8. If you know a family who is struggling but may be too proud to accept your help, cook them dinner and take it over. A home-cooked meal is pretty hard to turn down.
9. Buy a couple of extra items with your groceries and drop them at your local food bank.
10. Go through your wardrobe and take all the clothes you don't need or wear to a charity that helps underprivileged families.
For more information go to breakfastclub.org.nz
• Alexia Santamaria is a freelance journalist and contributor to Weekend Life. She worked with Steve Farrelly as a volunteer on the Randwick Park School project.