The path that welcomes salvation starts in colour, goes into shade, and exits again in light. They come to this tree-lined driveway in Gate Pa holding hands. This wasn't the plan; this was never the plan. The mother's steps are tentative. Her heart rate fast. As the driveway stretches out, steps quicken in nervous relief. Mother holding child. Child holding mother. Is this the right decision? Probably. She doesn't know for sure. She has to take a chance on someone though and that someone is Tommy Wilson.

Everything moves outside Whare Ora and Whare Awa.

In May's stiff breeze flower heads bob out of sync, and grass blades tickle their neighbours.

Tommy Wilson, executive director and "chief imagination officer" of social service Te Tuinga Whanau, is sitting on the concrete stoop of Whare Awa, oblivious to a monarch butterfly flitting above his head. In the sun, the one-level brick house, or "whare", looks a bright tangerine.

Best known as a Bay of Plenty Times columnist and children's book author, Wilson is working to reconnect disconnected Maori. "We see misery, sadness, grief and trauma every day."


Te Tuinga Whanau has opened two new emergency housing shelters in Gate Pa - Whare Ora and Whare Awa. Whare Awa is dedicated to Wilson's best mate Awanuiarangi Black, who died last year.

Its clients are mothers and children, 90 per cent are Maori, and most are out-of-towners who've escaped gangs, domestic violence and drugs.

Maori who are connected to their iwi aren't the ones Te Tuinga Whanau sees.

"The Government funding model is 'iwi look after iwi', but that doesn't work in our case. By default, we're a pan-tribal authority... Someone has to look after who we call our lost tribe."

Wilson has never been disconnected from his iwi - Ngati Ranginui and Ngai Te Rangi - but he has been lost.

"I've been where they are. I've lived a life of not having much." Up until a year ago, he lived in a converted tractor shed in Te Puna. He's also been through the challenges of life when it comes to self-medicating.

Does he want to talk about that?

"Not yet, because it'll be coming out in my memoirs, I'm penning right now... All I want to say is I'm 12 years, three months 100 per cent drug and alcohol-free. You know, that's my greatest achievement. More than [having] 31 books and 800,000 words in print."

For me, It takes a lot of courage to stand naked with your opinion... every Monday, and I don't think people understand. Courage of your convictions to stand and have an opinion.

Wilson, who in the next few weeks will change his name by deed poll to his writing name, Tommy Kapai, is working on a biography of his colourful life.

"I want to be Koro Kapai for the last remaining summers I have on this planet, and sometimes I feel I haven't got a lot of life left."


"I don't know. I've lived a pretty hard life. So um, I count my years in summers now. I really do."

Is he healthy though? "I'm healthier than I was 20 years ago. I'm drug and alcohol-free, but I'm tired."

It sounds morbid, but he knows what he wants on his headstone, and it will read: "Ki tai wiwi, ki tai wawa [the tide comes in, the tide goes out]. And it kind of explains life itself."

On the outside, he is a character. A natural orator, a joker, a larger-than-life personality that doesn't hold back. But he hides what can be a tough gig. He doesn't want to network, and he certainly doesn't want to "mix and mingle". He's been out at night very few times in the past 12 years. "So people don't know me in the Tauranga social scene."

Seventeen years of writing columns for the newspaper has seen him gain many fans and some enemies. He gets "bad mail". Maori see him as a Pakeha sympathiser, and Pakeha see him as a born-again Maori.

"For me, It takes a lot of courage to stand naked with your opinion... every Monday, and I don't think people understand. Courage of your convictions to stand and have an opinion.... It carries a strain."

He is who he is though. He's not a "Ngati whinger".

He answers 40 emails a day, writes 1000 words a day, reads 10,000 words a day. Listens to National Radio a lot. He has one day off a week, and that's usually a Saturday to watch his beloved black and blue Te Puna play rugby. He was their waterboy for 52 games and has the blazer to prove it.

He's not much for DIY or groundwork - his wife mows the lawns at the family whenua (family orchard). He likes to cook - Mexican dishes are his favourite. "Loves Frisbee" - came sixth in the New Zealand Frisbee throwing titles. Plays golf. Croons to Van Morrison and Bob Marley - "I'm an ex-hippie. I'm Sweetwaters, hard."

Te Tuinga Whanau Support Services executive director Tommy Kapai.
Te Tuinga Whanau Support Services executive director Tommy Kapai.

The rest of the time, he creates, creates. His ideas keep him awake at night.
What makes his kids' books different to others?

"Good question because just about every second person I meet says they wanna write a children's book."

It's so easy, right?

"Yeah, so easy. Here's how hard it is first: The odds of writing a children's book and getting it published are the same as getting picked to be an NPC rugby player. The odds of getting a best-seller in this country is about the same as becoming an All Black. You need to know your recipe."

He bases all his characters on someone who has been real in his life. His next book, When Daddy Comes Home, is coming out in five weeks. The book is about a girl's wish for when her father is released from prison, something that affects 25,000 Kiwi kids.

He's also working on Koha - The Culturally Cool Card Game, which will launch during Maori Language Week in September. The game aims to promote, preserve and teach te reo Maori by helping Kiwis learn how to correctly pronounce Maori landmarks.

In amongst this, he works at TTW. Along with writing, social work is his purpose.

He's not a rich man monetary wise, but rich in ways he feels trumps a fat bank balance.
"It's like my dad said: 'You've just got to go out and make people happy in life. It's pretty simple."

He married Sarah Tangitu five months ago (they've been together 17 years), and have a daughter, Waiwhakaata Honfleur, 12. A koro of four, he also has two stepchildren and another daughter, Holly Ruth Hazel aka "Her Royal Highness," 24, with first wife, comedian Michele A'Court.

Born Thomas Lindsay Wilson - "very white isn't it? Give me Tommy Kapai any day" - he's one of 11 kids born to war veteran and former street kid, Len Wilson, and Kiritapu or "Kitty" Wilson (nee Borell).

Home was Mount Maunganui, and it was an electric place of waiata, "hard case humour," kai and kindness. He left Mount College at 16, trained as a steward, and later moved to Australia's Hamilton Island, where he worked as the editor of the island magazine and a personal assistant to the rich and famous, including George Harrison, Jimmy Buffett, Nicole Kidman and Van Morrison. He went on to travel and work in 30 countries looking after the wealthy and playing with their fast cars, private jets and superyachts. He returned home at age 40. He's now 62.

"Mum wrote me a letter saying: 'This is a good chance, boy. Travelling the world, working for the rich and famous. This is your chance in life'. And I remember writing her a letter and saying: 'No, mum, I'm coming home."'

He'd come to realise mana not money was important. "These people had everything, but they had nothing. I wanted to make a difference."

He'd been told at 9 by Omanu Primary teacher Jean Wills he had a gift for writing.

"I had no idea what a gift was because we didn't get Christmas presents; family of 11 kids. So she explained what my gift was - I was a writer."

He moved South, married A'Court, they had their daughter, and split seven years later. During that time the darkness crept in.

He started his first children's book, Kapai the Kiwi, then lost the copyright.
"I went to a place that was dark."

He eventually recovered with the help of his whanau, and for a guy who failed School C English "bitterly" he's now close to having a million words in print and can hold a conversation in four languages.

He writes for those who can't read, not for those who can.
Some of his clients are the very people his books are aimed at helping. And he wants to see other Maori step up to aid their people.

"You know, besides Nanny Tuki bringing us Easter eggs two Easters ago, we have had not many Maori come through the door with help. Yet there are some very wealthy Maori trusts and individuals here in Tauranga."

And these people deserve help just as much as everyone else?

"Huh! Everybody gets wrong cards dealt to them in life. I've been there.

"We should all be rolling up our sleeves, not waiting for the Government or wealthy Tauranga retirees. Some Maori share the load, but there's a "great vacuum".

He and his staff use "social service superglue" to reconnect their clients - "it's like walking around with jumper leads", and once they are reconnected, they stay in touch.

"When you see families, and you know you've helped them, and they know you know, there's that bond. There's that raised eyebrow, that Maori wave. That's priceless. That's a taonga, that's a joy."