‘The biggest personal challenge I’ve faced in my career is not walking away. I could have … many times. Staying was much harder as there was so much against us during those difficult times.’
It’s been quite a journey for Pesio Ah-Honi, Mapu Maia National Director Pacific Services, Problem Gambling Foundation. Starting from literally nothing nearly 20 years ago, Pesio’s career path has led her to managing a team of nine staff, providing a national Pacific clinical and public health service in the problem gambling sector.
But as she explains, that path hasn’t always been easily paved.
Pesio started in the mental health sector in 2001 working in a contracted public health role for Pacific Trust, an NGO based in Manukau. She said there was no structure or targets for the work she was doing.
“I rolled out the first Manukau Pacific public health programme,” she said.
“That was pretty much doing presentations, talking to people and I really just winged it. There wasn’t much to go on so I struggled but managed to raise some awareness.”
After that contract finished, Pesio worked at Niu Development, an organisation that received a national public health problem gambling contract.
Pesio said it was funny looking back as she had to start completely from scratch.
“There were no specs, no contract requirements and I had to roll out a strategy drawing solely on my experience with Pacific people and my marketing background,” she said.
“I had no public health qualifications or experience so my strategy was writing down what we were going to do in a Word document that only I saw.”
Part of that strategy involved making contacts and Pesio said the biggest of those was the Problem Gambling Foundation (PGF), an organisation that she joined as a health promoter in 2003.
Her initial experience working in the problem gambling sector was identifying that there was a big gap in intentional targeting of Pacific; a lack of looking at things through a Pacific lens.
“There was no strategy or intent to engage with Pacific people and it felt like it was just a scattered approach with no structure,” she said.
By the time Graeme Ramsey took the helm at PGF, Pesio had resigned and was doing contract work for the organisation. She led the sinking lid campaign in Manukau in 2007 which saw over 7,500 submissions delivered to the Council and the establishment of OGAAG (the Otara Gambling and Alcohol Action Group).
This was a career highlight for Pesio and the turning point when she knew that her passion for this work and for improving the lives of Pacific people living in New Zealand was going to lead her to bigger things.
And it did. After accepting a fulltime role at PGF, Pesio said what started as a conversation in 2009 about filling the gap in Pacific services, grew to the launch of Mapu Maia in 2010, barely a year later.
Pesio laughs when she recalls those first years.
“We were a team of two,” she said.
“Me and Rufo, developing a public health programme.”
Rufo Pupuali’i came up with the name Mapu Maia for the service, a Samoan name meaning a place to come in and rest.
But there was no rest for this formidable team of two. It wasn’t long before a part-time clinical team member was recruited and they were able to offer full clinical and public health services to the Pacific community. Rufo also later became a qualified clinician but as the team grew in size, so did the work.
Pesio said the biggest challenge was, and still is, getting funding and being recognised as a Pacific service.
“We have grown but with no additional funding,” she said.
“The need in the community is so much bigger than what we can provide. The challenge is that the people and families we work with need a holistic approach - it’s never just about gambling harm.”
“Clients present with multiple co-existing social and health issues so it is really challenging dealing with that.”
Ten years on, Mapu Maia is a team of nine and although staff have come and gone over the years, Pesio said they remain as dedicated, passionate and driven as they always have been.
“Even though we are spread around the country now, we make sure we remain true to what and who we are,” she said.
“This isn’t a nine to five job for any of us and it certainly isn’t about the money. It’s about meeting the needs of our community, and our staff have the passion for their work or they wouldn’t be here.”
Pesio believes one of the keys to Mapu Maia’s success is the mix of public health and clinical work, and Talatalanoa, the Samoan word for ‘having a chat’.
“Counselling means nothing to Pacific people so Talatalanoa is a strong, successful approach. We also support our clinical work with public health events, radio advertising and media interviews to increase awareness about harmful gambling in our communities.”
While the work is hard at times and Pesio has found it difficult to not walk away from it all, her resilience and perseverance has kept her going through good times and bad.
“I’ve really grown as a person over the last 20 years,” she said.
“It’s not until you’ve lived it and can look back at all the successes, the disappointments and the let downs, that you can appreciate how far you’ve come.”
“I’ve grown a thick skin and when someone knocks me down I just want to get back up and prove them wrong. The fight for equality and the sense of social justice works well for me and this role brings it out strongly and keeps me going.”
When Pesio reflects on her journey, she believes it’s just got better and better over time.
“My vision has slowly come to fruition,” she said. “But I’m not alone in this; I’ve got a great team that believes in that vision.”