Aroha, adversity, achievement – markers in a life devoted to turning negatives into positives
"I was my mother's little secret".
A conversation stopper if ever there was one but these were the words Mercia-Dawn Yates pushed play on as she gave Our People no-holds-barred entry into her life.
That she was so frank will come as no surprise to those who know Mercia-Dawn well, many do.
She's one of those local identities who pops up all over the place demonstrating her deep commitment to her whanau, iwi, community, is an educational leader and has emceed the past two New Year's Eve Glo Festivals, a multi-tasker best described as elegance personified.
It will be a rare occasion when Mercia-Dawn's out and about without her right hand man, 23-year-old son Te Manaia-a-Hirini.
He's one special kid is Te Manaia Yates, he was born with the genetic disorder, Down syndrome.
To neither mother nor son is it an affliction but a gift that bonds them with their own unique love.
Te Manaia came into his mother's life when she was 26.
Her mother, the late Dixie Yates, was considerably younger when she gave birth to her, therein lies the clue to Mercia-Dawn saying she was her mother's "little secret".
The Rotorua Hospital physiotherapist became pregnant in that antiquated era when the words "unmarried mother" were consigned to the "shock/horror" category.
Dixie, every bit as much a Rotorua personality as her daughter was to become, took her (pregnant) self to Auckland, feigning a course. A couple of close girlfriends were in on the ruse.
Two days before Mercia-Dawn's birth the late Linda Morrison, decreed enough was enough telling Dixie's mum, Maud Yates, of her daughter's imminent delivery.
Maud was on the next bus out of town wrapping her daughter with aroha, to hell with the tongue-waggers.
From then on Mercia-Dawn became her whanau's pride and job. "My aunties referred to me as their little doll."
She was at Girls' High on the cusp of sitting School Certificate when, at 15, her world caved in.
"Nana passed away suddenly then three months later Mum was diagnosed with cancer, told she had six weeks to live. I was her only child, the last thing I told her was I'd passed School Cert."
Understandably Mercia-Dawn's sixth form year was a struggle. "The teachers were very good to me, I was living with my Uncle Sid and Aunty Trish Yates who were teachers but I failed UE [University Entrance]. I was devastated."
A year on she passed not only UE but several bursary papers as well.
Too emotionally attached to Rotorua to pursue tertiary qualifications elsewhere, she enrolled at Waiariki (now Toi Ohomai).
"I started to do business management but within three months realised it wasn't for me. I asked myself 'do I want wealth or job satisfaction? Do I want to wear a suit or do I want to be someone who determines their own life?" I still live by those catch phrases."
She piggybacked her Waiariki studies with part-time tutoring at the Extravagance Model Agency, she's modelled since she was 14, and working with committed supporters since her mother's death, Ian and Linda Edward.
"They become like a mum and dad to me, from 15 to 23 I worked in their businesses Crawfords the Chemist and La Rouge, even when I did leave town to study I'd be there in holidays."
The Edwards and aunties encouraged her to return to Girls' High to acquire the qualifications she needed for Hamilton Teachers College.
"I was 19, still worried about leaving home but loved it immediately. I was adamant I wouldn't leave without anything less than my Masters."
Computers had become the in-thing by the time Mercia-Dawn was back in the learning environment giving her skills established teachers lacked, schools snapped her up for what she calls her "digital tutu-ness'.
"I was hired to teach teachers how to use computers." Her one regret – she left university, which she'd moved to from teachers college, without completing her thesis.
"That gave me a feeling of unaccomplishment [sic], not being true to my word [obtaining her Masters]."
Regardless, her previously topsy-turvy life plateaued out, she bought her own home in Raglan, was teaching at Huntly's Rakaumanga, one of the early Māori immersion schools.
After three years commuting she bought in Huntly. She'd barely settled in when she became pregnant with Te Manaia.
"His father was a good friend, but I decided to do this by myself although differently from Mum. I thought it very important I let the baby's father know so his family could always be included in my child's life."
A month out from her son's birth her uncle Sid died suddenly. "His death rocked my world again, he was going to be my support person."
The Hirini part of Te Manaia's names, which in English translates to Sidney, pays tribute to him.
A group she labels as her "angels" surrounded her during her baby's birth.
"My best friend, my aunties, two midwives including Steve Chadwick [now mayor] fussed over me. I thought it was because I was Dixie's daughter, she was the hospital's head physio when she died.
"Then the following morning I was greeted with the news my baby had Down Syndrome. I burst into tears, I felt by labelling him he was being put in a box. I've always made sure he's not treated differently, that's my prerogative. He's my gift, I can't imagine life without him."
Kapa haka has always been a passion, she was in the Ngāti Rangiwewehi group that won the then Aotearoa Maori Performing Arts Festive (now Matatini) in 1996.
With the win came a trip to Samoa.
"That's where I fell in love with Richard Francis, the man who's the father of my other two children."
He followed her to Huntly where she'd returned following Te Manaia's birth. "He came to class with me, I worked throughout all my pregnancies."
Son Matangireia was born in 1998, daughter Dixie the following year.
In 2002 the family made the permanent move home (Rotorua), the couple have since separated.
Mercia-Dawn's steeped herself and her children in kapa haka.
"Te Manaia loves his poi work, has performed a lot in public, he really enjoys making people smile and be happy."
Acknowledging her life hasn't been without its speed bumps her take on it is that she's tended to have ridden through it in waves' crests and troughs.
"I guess you could say I've had an extraordinary life."
Amen to that.
Born: Auckland, 1969
Education: Rotorua Primary, Intermediate and Girls' High, Hamilton Teachers College, Waikato University
Family: Two sons, Te Manaia, 23 (at St Chad's), Matangireia, 21, Auckland, daughter Dixie, 19, Hamilton, both studying.
Iwi affiliations: Te Arawa, Te Aitanga-a-Mahaki, Rongowhakaata, Ngāti Maniapoto, Irish, Jewish.
Present employment: Director and Education Advisor Ngā Pūmanawa e Waru.
Interests: Whānau, culture, kapa haka, education. "Arts and fashion, I love my labels, I blame my mum or that. Sport, growing up I played netball, basketball, tennis." Is tackling this year's half marathon. "A half for a half kinda thing, doing it in my 50th year." Member Girls' and Boys' Highs' Boards of Trustees
On Rotorua: "It's our country's cultural melting pot."
Personal philosophy: "I walk each day hoping to make my Mummy proud."