It was a split-second that almost cost Pera Barrett his life – yet it became one of the catalysts in helping him bring sparkle to the lives of thousands of children living close to the poverty line.
Every December the 33-year-old father of two, IT expert and sometime rapper and novelist, adds another string to his bow: He morphs into a Santa Claus, organising close to 5,000 Christmas presents each year for children from low socio-economic areas and schools near Wellington.
The presents are delivered through a project Barrett introduced in the region, known as Shoebox Christmas. But if it were not for his lucky escape from a fatal car crash 11 years ago, none of it might have happened.
"I was 22 and was seriously injured in a 100kmh head-on crash," he says. "I snapped my femur, crushed both feet, broke my jaw, knocked out my front teeth, punctured a lung and had pretty major head trauma. I spent the next four months in bed and a wheelchair and my doctors told me I was very lucky to survive.
"And I was lucky - a lady in the other vehicle passed away."
This tragedy gave Barrett a new perspective on life: "I feel like I have to live twice as good because someone else lost that opportunity," he says. "It gave me an appreciation and gratitude for still being here; it helped me develop urgency and to realise we are here for a finite time and if I am to help others I should do so now."
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The Shoebox Christmas initiative ultimately provided the vehicle for Barrett to give back - and his work with the charity has earned him an ASB Good as Gold award. The bank is giving him $3,000 to assist with the Shoebox appeal this Christmas, $3,000 to pursue his passion for writing (he has published a novel) and $4,000 to take his family on a holiday.
Since starting the Shoebox initiative in Wellington four years ago, 8960 presents have been delivered to needy children in the Wellington area – many of which Barrett has personally delivered himself.
"I'm the sole person arranging all of this and at times I feel like I've delivered them all," he says. "Most Novembers and Decembers go by in a blur, I collapse at the end of the year."
Barrett says 35 schools are involved in the project and provide him with a list of children. "I arrange the sponsors, ask what age and gender preference they have, and let them know when I've allocated a child for them to buy for."
Gifts are purchased to a maximum value of $30, wrapped and delivered to the school.
Barrett says the initiative had small beginnings, the first year involving one school and 80 children. Since then it has grown significantly and this Christmas he expects to be arranging 4,700 presents.
"I grew up in Otaki (near Wellington) and did so around a lot of poverty," he says. "But it wasn't until my daughter was born (she is now four, he also has an 11-month-old son) I realised how lucky we are compared to others. There are kids who play with my daughter who have no money to buy their school lunch.
"I felt as a member of the same society if I can make a difference to others then I have an obligation to do so."
Barrett also organises stationery starter packs for children to use in their first year at college: "This began after a girl entered stationery on her Christmas present wish list; she burst into tears because she was worried her parents couldn't afford to buy what she needed.
"I thought 'this is not right, there shouldn't be kids out there who can't get the basics they need to get the education they need'."
Incredibly Barrett does all of this around a full time job - he is an IT manager - his writing and the occasional gig as a rap artist (he raps under the stage name Perceive).
"I'm a rapper and I've always done music. I also love working with words and putting them together and have self-published a novel - The Man who Writes the Dreams. It has sold about 500 copies and I did it to show my daughter that if you want to publish a book you can - and that she can apply this logic to whatever she is doing."
How does he find the time to do all of this? "I get up a little earlier. I'm up at 4.30. I do an hour of writing, get my daughter ready for daycare and then go to work."
# Barrett says he is still thinking about how best to leverage the ASB prize in this year's Shoebox appeal - and he and his wife have yet to decide where they are going to take their family on holiday.