After hundreds of nominations and months of story profiles, some of the country's top unsung heroes have been named winners of the inaugural Pride of New Zealand Awards.

Seven people from around New Zealand received the gongs -- honouring bravery and heroism, community spirit, lifetime achievement, environmental ambassadorship, emergency services and fundraiser of the year -- at a glitzy event at the Auckland War Memorial Museum tonight.

Wade Kelly, Winner of the Bravery & Heroism Award

osh and his friend Jamie had gone in for a dip near Waimarama Surf Lifesaving Club about 3pm when they were quickly swept sideways in extremely rough, foggy conditions. Mr and Mrs Randell were watching from the shore and rushed to their aid, but fell victim to the churning seas, struggling to stay afloat as waves washed over them. Quick thinking bystander Wade Kelly was preparing for a surf when he heard screams and crying from people gathered on the beach and dove in with his board. He made it a priority to rescue the young boys first and delivered Jamie and Josh to safety before heading out for the husband and wife, who were losing energy, just trying to stay afloat.

Wade Kelly won the bravery and heroism accolade for the selflessness he showed when he rescued four people -- including two young boys -- who got into trouble while swimming at Waimarama Beach.


Maera Maki-Anderson, of Murupara, was honoured with the emergency services award for her work as a volunteer firefighter over the past 26 years and Kathleen Mato received the environment award for her determination in improving water quality in Wairoa.

Auckland firefighter Tony "Scottie" Scott got the fundraiser of the year award for his ongoing fundraising efforts for the Fire Service and Tihi Puanaki received the lifetime achievement accolade for her 40-year work in promoting kapa haka.

The community spirit award was given to Julie King, who runs the Tokoroa Love Soup.

Julie King, Winner of the Community Spirit Award

Julie King admits it's an interesting twist of fate that something as harmful as legal-high addiction could inspire a soup-kitchen service. It all began, she said, when the problems legal highs were causing in her South Waikato town became too clear to ignore. "We even had three youths go by ambulance to hospital. Meanwhile, people using it were becoming scary, angry and paranoid - and it was breaking up families." In May this year she also ran ‘Blankets Galore’ a donation drive for warm blankets, hats, scarves and gloves – which were collected in Rotorua and redistributed to people in need, just in time for winter.

The People's Choice Award, sponsored by TSB Bank, went to Upper North Island regional finalist Greg Brownson.

The 63-year-old, of Auckland, has been a crew member of the Westpac Rescue Helicopter Trust for more than 30 years.

Over 10,000 votes were received for the People's Choice Award via the website and judges said Mr Brownson won by a huge margin.

Maera Maki-Anderson, Winner of the Emergency Services Award

At the ceremony tonight, Kiwi music legend Dave Dobbyn welcomed guests with a stirring rendition of his hit Welcome Home as guests settled in for the start of the show.

He later performed Beside You and Slice of Heaven.

Celebrity judges Mad Butcher Sir Peter Leitch, former news anchor Judy Bailey, Silver Fern Maria Tutaia and radio host Polly Gillespie presented a number of awards and judge VC holder Willie Apiata gave a video greeting.

Kathleen Mato, Winner of the Environment Award

Mahia environmentalist Kathleen Mato has a simple philosophy when it comes to seeking to change something that does not seem right. "You have to step forward and you have to do something, don't just sit there and talk about it." "It has been a lot of hard work and we have forged ahead," she said of the Whangawehi Catchment Management Group which she started in 2010. Her first task was to convince her own people they could make a change, but it wasn't easy. "Some laughed and said it couldn't be done." A year of hui and meetings and consultations followed to convince others to become pro-active rather than reactive.

The awards, in association with the Herald, APN Holdings, TSB Bank and The Hits radio station, were announced last year during the newspaper's 150th birthday celebrations.

More than 700 nominations were received between May and the end of last month, when nominations closed.

Tony (Scottie) Scott, Fundraiser of the Year

Herald editor Shayne Currie said choosing the winners had been a difficult task, given the high calibre of finalists.

"We've been thrilled with the response and it's humbling to see how many New Zealanders dedicate themselves to their communities or even put their own lives on the line for total strangers," he said.

"It makes you proud to be a Kiwi."

Tihi Puanaki, Winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award

Tihi Puanaki doesn’t always make choices that the rest of the Maori community approve of – but they’re the right choices for the people who come to her in need. Her kapa haka programme was considered outrageous by some for being inter-tribal and having a woman in charge – but Whaea Tihi taught her critics a lesson by winning repeated Matatini titles. “I come from a family of strong women who prepared me for conflict,” Whaea Tihi said. “Maori society doesn’t handle strong women that well, eh.”

The winners:

- Bravery & Heroism: Wade Kelly

- Community Spirit: Julie King

- Emergency Services: Maera Maki-Anderson

- Environment: Kathleen Mato

- Fundraiser of the year: Tony Scott

- Lifetime Achievement: Tihi Puanaki

- TSB Bank People's Choice: Greg Brownson

The finalists' stories - watch our videos here