Passionate young league player Oceanna Tuaupiki prepares to pass the ball to her U13 Kirikiriroa all-girls' team-mates. Photo: supplied.

Distance and cost almost stopped Oceanna Tuaupiki playing rugby league this season, but her mother’s dedication and a timely grant ensured the Waikato youngster’s dreams weren’t dashed.

To what lengths does a parent go to ensure their child can enjoy the benefits of sport?

In the case of Venessa Tuaupiki, the answer is almost 200 kilometres. That’s the distance she drives her 12-year-old daughter Oceanna – on a three-hour round trip – to play rugby league. And she does it up to four times a week.

Distance hasn’t been the only barrier they’ve had to overcome. So what lies behind such dedication?

Oceanna’s passion for her sport began three years ago when she joined a Waikato Māori rugby league team. At the time she lived in Hamilton, and her games were played just around the corner. No ‘Are we there yet?’ car rides required.

Sometimes her team won, sometimes they lost, but they always had fun, building confidence and developing healthy habits for life. Their enthusiastic coach even spoke of taking them to watch the State of Origin in Australia one day, keen to inspire them to dream big.

As it happened, Oceanna was in no doubt about future possibilities thanks to her cousin Taine Tuaupiki, who plays professional rugby league on the Gold Coast. 

But Oceanna’s league playing options all but disappeared when her family left their city life behind and moved to her grandparents’ farm near Kāwhia. There, opportunities to play sport were few and far between.

Venessa, a single parent of two, had to decide if she could manage the time and expense of driving the hour-and-a-half trip from Kāwhia to Hamilton and back again, to keep Oceanna playing the sport she loves.

Oceanna Tuaupiki (back row, far left) with her U13 Kirikiriroa team at the NZ Maori Rugby League Teina tournament in Rotorua. Photo: supplied. 

If not for her mum’s unshakeable commitment, and the timely arrival of a KidsCan community sports grant, Oceanna may well have ended up like many kids in remote, disadvantaged areas – unable to access or afford to play sport.

“I thought I’d find it hard this year and didn’t know if I could do it,” Venessa says. “But when the grant came in, I thought, ‘Yes – we can!’ It gave me a bit of faith.”

It meant Oceanna could play in two teams this season – the mixed U12 ki te Tonga team and the all-girls U13 Kirikiriroa team, who made the semifinals at the New Zealand Māori Rugby League Teina tournament in Rotorua in July. 

Oceanna is in Year 8 at Kāwhia Primary School where principal Leanne Apiti has observed the financial and personal sacrifices Oceanna’s mother has been prepared to make to ensure her daughter can train and compete.

“Venessa’s focus on her daughter’s needs above all else, as well as Oceanna’s achievements in sport, are great examples for our community about rising above challenges,” Apiti says.

Oceanna is one of thousands of students in hardship who are able to participate in sport thanks to the grants recently awarded to KidsCan partner schools, and funded by Cadbury.

KidsCan founder and CEO, Julie Chapman, says the grants mean the world to children in the low decile schools they support.

“It’s heartbreaking to think that Kiwi kids in hardship are prevented from taking part in sport because their families can’t afford the fees, don’t have transport to get to games or tournaments, or their resources aren’t up to scratch,” she says.

“The applications we received highlighted just how much sport means for these tamariki, and how important it is for their wellbeing. Teachers wrote that for some, it is reprieve from their daily reality of life.”

Julie Chapman, CEO and founder of KidsCan. Photo: KidsCan.

It’s not uncommon for schools to share heartrending stories, Chapman says, about parents on very low incomes making huge personal sacrifices so their children can play sport.

“We hope this takes the pressure off them,” she says. “Sport builds resilience, relationships, and self-worth – and it’s fun.”

Venessa Tuaupiki says the grant has certainly taken pressure off her, but more than that, it has spurred her on. 

“I love this grant because it gives me motivation to carry on. I’m doing it for the love of my children, but now I know luck is on my side, and I can keep going,” she says.

Another driver for Venessa is having experienced the benefits of sport herself while growing up in Kāwhia.

“I used to do horse-riding and travelled to show jumping and equestrian events. That’s what my parents did for me. So I know how far and wide you open your hands to get those great experiences,” she says. 

Oceanna already appreciates the way sport is broadening her horizons.

“My highlight so far was travelling to Rotorua for a tournament and getting to see other places,” she says. She hopes her team will go to watch the State of Origin one day soon.

Girls teams get together at the NZ Maori Rugby League Teina tournament in Rotorua in July. Photo: supplied.  

Venessa says the main thing she wants for her kids are the life experiences that sport offers. “There are the special parts of sport you hold onto all your life, of when you roamed afar and played against teams from other parts of New Zealand. You learn to get out and about,” she says.

She’s never forgotten travelling to events when she was an equestrian.

“We didn’t have the flashest gears. I’m from a Māori family and equestrian was a Pākehā sport, so I really got it from all the girls and boys. But I didn’t care because I had the skills,” Venessa says. “My pony club teacher [who was Pākehā] told my kids that no one liked their mum back then because she was the only dark person. But I had the ability to beat them. My Dad always told me, it’s the skills that show them; you don’t need to say anything.

“But I had to be pretty strong to go through all that. You just do your best and go hard.” She’s still proud of the show jumping ribbons she won at the North Island championships.

She acknowledges that societal attitudes have come a long way since her equestrian days, and says today’s challenge is motivating kids to play sport.

“We had more motivation back then. Now, not everyone is keen; technology keeps them sitting inside,” she says.

At a time when the digital era, rising inequality, and Covid-19 have all compounded the challenge of keeping young people active, KidsCan is determined to make a difference.

The sport grants are provided as part of Cadbury’s Donate Your Kit programme. Cadbury and KidsCan have worked together for two years and the latest community sports grants have seen 57 schools awarded a total of $184,456 this year ($161,975 for teams and $22,481 for individuals).

Other recipients around Aotearoa included Kawerau primary students being able to do the Tough Guys and Gals mud run in Rotorua, kids in Gore taken skiing for the first time, and Upokongaro School in Whanganui receiving gear to train and participate in the first Māori traditional games. 

KidsCan are not alone in their quest to remove barriers to participation. Earlier in the year, Sport New Zealand announced a two-year pilot, in partnership with Variety, to support tamariki and rangatahi in high need communities.

“It’s about ‘putting the participant first’ and finding out what they want to do, so they stay with sport and active recreation for life,” Sport New Zealand chief executive, Raelene Castle, told Stuff at the time.

Whether Oceanna follows in the footsteps of her cousin Taine, playing league for the Burleigh Bears in Queensland, or simply continues to play recreational sport, right now being in her rugby league team and getting to travel around the motu mean the world to her.

It means a lot to her mother, too. “It will be good for Oceanna to look back one day and think, yeah there were some good moments.”

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