We all have light bulb moments in life.

Those moments where a switch is flicked on by someone telling us there is some way we can help a situation that sometimes we think is broken beyond repair - and is better left alone.

For me, it was an 8-year-old girl waving her hand at me and calling out my name while I was trying to teach one of my creative writing and reading courses at a local primary school.

"Mr Kapai, Mr Kapai!" she shouted enthusiastically, not willing to wait a moment longer.


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I tried to raise the voice a few decibels and ignore the waving hand that by now had become busier than an auctioneers gavel trying to attract the attention of a potential punter.

Finally, I relented and asked her what was so important

"You taught my dad to read," she blurted out once she had my attention - and the attention of the rest of the class.

"Sweetheart, I'm sorry, but I don't know your dad and I don't think I know your name either," I politely replied.

"Yeah ,yeah you know me, remember last year, you came to our school and you asked a question and I got it right, and you gave me a Kapai book, and I took it to my dada in jail, and he learned to read it, and I helped him, and if anyone touched my dada's book he gave them the bash, so yeah you taught my dad how to read just like us kids are learning now!"

That was my lightbulb moment.

Ever since then, I have been working out ways for how we as a community can connect with fathers, like that of the little 8-year-old, who have disconnected from their families and whānau while serving a sentence inside the wire.


We all know the stats and we all know that what we are doing is not working when it comes to reintegrating our prison population back into our communities.

Currently, there are 10,260 inmates locked up in 18 prisons throughout the land of the locked up whanau.

Fifty-one per cent are Māori and what I found during my light bulb moment is many of these 51 per cent mirror the same set of circumstances as the homeless we are dealing with every day on the streets of our own backyards.

We all need somewhere to belong, somewhere to call home and a place to reconnect back to our families and whānau.

Currently in Tauranga, when you come out of prison and come home or come here to try to make a fresh start away from the troubled waters that got you locked up the first place, there is no bridge to walk across.

There is no one home for these men, many of whom are fathers to little girls like the 8-year-old putting her hand up for her dad.

How could this be you may well ask, given it costs the taxpayer $100,000 per year to keep an inmate incarcerated and over a lifetime of offending – if these men are not reconnected to their whanau, they will cost the victims and taxpayers $3 million.

Right now their options are to go back to their gang pads or go back to reoffending and back to jail, leaving those who matter most waiting for visiting hours at the next new jail to be built.

The good news, and there is always a silver lining to a dark cloud, is if an inmate connects with their whānau while they are still inside, and then that connection is strengthened on their release, the chances of them reoffending and returning to the same old same old cycle of inside, outside, and inside again is dramatically reduced.

Surely this is something we, as a community, who want the best for those who want a place and a whānau to call home, can agree on and do something about?

Today, a group of us are doing just that.

At 11 minutes past 11 we will open the first "Whare For Freedom", a place where recently released can reconnect with the outside world and learn new coping skills to hopefully keep them out of a system that has a direct impact on 22,000 Kiwi kids who are affected by an incarcerated parent.

Two short years ago we opened our first homeless Whare For Whānau on a wing and a prayer and the generosity of some community kingpins who had a conscience and a few spare bob in their pockets.

Today we have 53 families safely housed in 15 homes and 12 motel rooms.

With the same challenges and sets of similar reconnection circumstances, we believe we can achieve the same outcomes for recently released low-risk prisoners.

All it takes is for someone to put up their hand like an 8-year-old at the back of the classroom and say "I care".

Tommy Kapai first started working for the Bay of Plenty Times as a paperboy in 1961 and is now a columnist of 15 years. He is a best-selling author and executive director of Te Tuinga Whānau, a social service agency helping weave the community back together again.