Returning back home has benefitted Melissa Waaka in more ways than one.

For the past 20 years, Rotorua's Melissa Waaka had been living in Australia but circumstances changed and the mother-of-three, with one on the way, packed up her family and returned to Rotorua, in hope of support.

But since then she has found her craft and is thankful to the whenua for being able to grow and nurture it.

It was a lot harder than expected for Waaka when she ventured back to Rotorua as rental prices blew her away and as a result, she was "forced" to stay with various family members for brief periods.


However, a friend connected Waaka with Te Arawa Whānau Ora paeārahi Hinehou Stoneham, who quickly became her strongest support system, helping her to navigate through different social support agencies and job applications.

"Hinehou was just a soldier from day one," Waaka said.

"The first week I moved into the house all this food was left here and it was Hinehou. Hinehou's just a trooper and my angel when I needed it."

The pair wrote Waaka a plan going forward, which included finding a decent job to pay the bills, sending her kids to school and feeding them.

Melissa Waaka returned home looking for support but in turn, she got more than she bargained for. Photo / Supplied
Melissa Waaka returned home looking for support but in turn, she got more than she bargained for. Photo / Supplied

Her heart was set on a job and after dotting all her I's and crossing the T's unfortunately Waaka found out she didn't make the cut.

"I thought I'd have a little bit of a chance, but I didn't even get an interview. I was surprised and disappointed because I'd already held that role and it would've been nice to work with my own people."

Waaka contemplated her next move. She'd created clay jewellery as a hobby for 15 years and decided, "'stuff it", I'll buy some clay and start making jewellery.

Since then, Waaka has had her jewellery featured at the Pacific Runaway Fashion show in Sydney after featuring at the Aronui Māori Markets earlier this year.


"I didn't necessarily sell lots of pieces but for me it's not even about the money. It's about the conversation. It's about engaging people.

"I couldn't have gotten to the level of my craft if I was in Australia. There's just something about being home and connecting your art, particularly your Māori art, to the whenua."

Coming home has been about health and wellbeing for Waaka and she thanks the support the Te Arawa Whānau Ora programme which helped clear her mind.

"People say you need money to have that, but I don't believe it. Although I'm not earning as much as I'd hoped for, mentally and physically my children and I are in a better space."

Waaka is now looking at exiting the Te Arawa Whānau Ora programme.

"They've helped me enough and I think it's unfair to stay on the programme when there's someone else in more need.

"When I look at where I was when I started, to now, I feel the need's been filled. But I'd like to come back as a mentor and help others. That's a way for me to give back."