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Once a successful Tongan rugby player with a career that took him to Japan and France, Isileli (Kai) Tupou is now following his other passion working with people with disabilities. He is also breaking down cultural barriers, by helping to empower members of his Christchurch Pasifika Community.

Kai is developing his own career further and is now completing the Level 5 Diploma in Leadership and Management with the support of Industry Training Organisation, Careerforce.


A passion for people

Training athletes in Tonga for the Oceania Paralympics in 2008 first ignited his interest in helping people with disabilities.  When he saw the incredible successes these people could achieve, it simply melted his heart.

His rugby career took him overseas, offering great opportunities and experiences, yet his passion was still to work with people with disabilities one day. In his thirties, and realising he couldn’t play rugby forever, he moved to Christchurch and found his ‘dream’ role as Disability Coordinator for Vaka Tautua.

Vaka Tautua provides community support for older people, people living with disability and those needing support for mental health. Kai manages the Christchurch branch.

“My role is to step in on behalf of the whānau, be their advocate and provide them with the most appropriate, up to date and quality information. These people are so lost in this world.  They don’t know where to start asking for help.  They also have the stigma of whakamā (having a feeling of shame or embarrassment). They don’t want to ask for help and don’t have the confidence, because of cultural and/or language barriers.  These people, sit in their homes and struggle with everything.”


Knowledge is king

When the opportunity came along to start the Level 5 Diploma in Leadership & Management with Careerforce, he embraced it and admits to being obsessed with his own development and improvement.

Kai already sits on the Tongan Community Christchurch Leaders Council and is a church leader and has been a leader in sports and community teams.

“Enough is sometimes not good enough,” says Kai. “You’ve just got to strive for more, build on what you know, and that’s what I’ve been doing with this course, working with Careerforce Assessor John Kenny.

“It’s just adding more insight and development to what I already know from my travel experiences, my work, and from experience from life itself.  I consider myself very lucky to have done the course, so that I can have this addition of knowledge to be a better leader”.


Breaking down cultural barriers

Kai believes that it’s important to empower people with experience, skills, development and learning.  But this type of thinking is not the same for all Pasifika people.

“Sometimes in our culture we are taught to be satisfied with what we have, and live our lives to the best of our abilities whatever we have.  We are taught that family comes first and education is second. Respecting our cultural protocol is most important.

“Some caregivers I work with, could go and get full time jobs, and study, but they won’t because of the cultural protocol to look after their elders.  It’s considered better for a child to leave education and look after Nana.  But now, in this modern world, we encourage the caregiver to go and study, get a better income and provide for your family in that way, because we have alternative services in place around your Nana to help”.


On job learning style ideal for Pasifika

“I really wanted to learn, to go further, and I have found this [on job] learning the right kind of training, with a safe cultural approach and a safe environment for Pasifika.  The environment was encouraging, the timeframe is flexible, and these factors all helped me a lot to achieve the qualification.  Also, my Assessor, John (Kenny) understands me and was very supportive, especially around the cultural protocols.

“It’s important to understand that the stigma of whakamā is very strong. Whakamā is being shameful of letting somebody down, shameful to engage because you have this and that, shameful to ask for help, and being shameful to put yourself out there.

Kai described the Level 5 leadership programme as achievable and flexible. “Everything has just fallen into place.

“Going to university is OK for those who don’t work in a cultural setting, but for those who have a cultural element involved in the process, it may be difficult for them to do that. This type of on the job learning I feel is the best.

“I think moving forward for a better future for our younger Pasifika generation, the people who do the empowering like myself and other leaders just need to be open, despite the cultural barriers, despite the traditions, despite having to ‘look after Nana’. The primary caregiver needs to open up to opportunities with additional learning.  We’re not changing anything, not changing our culture at all.  It’s just adding on top of what you already have, to educate and give more confidence.  Isn’t that what we’re doing with our children? Don’t we want things to be better for our children?


More information about the New Zealand Diploma in Business (Level 5) Leadership & Management.