Tonight, Ben Purua will stand on the stage at the Ahuwhenua Trophy Dairy Competition Awards Dinner as one of three finalists in the Young Māori Farmer Award. Ten years ago, as a teenager, he stood being judged in a very different environment; the dock of Hamilton High Court being sentenced after pleading guilty to manslaughter.
Two accomplices also pleaded guilty to murder and manslaughter and all were sent to prison.
Ben was sentenced to five-and-a-half years, and served four years at Waikeria Prison.
This week he was back inside, but this time accompanied by his wife Nikki as a guest speaker as part of a Waikato dairy farmers field day at the Waikeria Prison farms.
The event was supported by Department of Corrections, Vetora, Dairy NZ and Primary ITO to give Waikato farmers a chance to learn about Waikeria Prison’s farming operations, learn about the agricultural training prisoners are receiving and introduce the idea of farmers employing a prisoner, either as part of work release or permanently upon release.
Ben is a shining example of a success story, but that only came about when he was finally given an opportunity to put his skills learnt in prison to use on the outside.
Now aged 26, Ben is the 2IC for a contract milker at Trinity Lands farm, a 307ha (287 effective) property near Tokoroa which runs 1000 cows.
On Wednesday, he stood in front of Waikato dairy farmers, industry visitors, Corrections staff and inmate dairy farming trainees and told his story.
He said he grew up in Pukekohe without a father and in an environment of violence, drugs, alcohol and gangs.
As a kid he wanted to be a gangster just like his uncles, and took up drinking, drug-taking and crime to pave the way.
He said before he was a teenager he was in trouble and eventually he served time in juvenile prisons.
Before he was legally an adult he was charged with the murder of an elderly man in Hamilton.
The charges were downgraded to manslaughter and Ben pleaded guilty.
He felt that his life was over, he couldn’t read or write and he thought his gang life was all he had to look forward to.
But inside Waikeria he undertook the farm training programme, and with help with his learning problems he found something he enjoyed and was good at.
Ben said it wasn’t plain sailing on his release and he could have gone back to crime, as he had on every release in the past, but he realised he needed to do better for his own wife and family.
Luckily, he got a break when he was employed in a farming job.
He admits it was a big step for someone to take. Mostly he never got to the interview stage once he disclosed he had a criminal record.
Nikki explained: “Every prospective employer would have Googled his name and up came the case.”
But having been given a chance, Ben said he was driven to make it work.
Ben left the gang life – it was a big step, it was his whole life growing up – he got clean and applied himself to his new goals, and his life started to turn around.
He has completed the husbandry and feeding course Level 3 through Primary ITO and is currently part way through the Level 4 course.
He talked about his love of being hands on – a real tutu – but now in a constructive way, how he loves to be up early and with his animals and how he loves being outdoors and enjoying the physical challenges of the dairy industry.
In a direct korero to his “brothers” on the inside, he said: “There is hope. I’m testament.”
As well as being a finalist in the Young Māori Farmer Award, Ben has enjoyed other industry award successes.
“The people are awesome and it inspires us to continue to aim high,” he said.
Ben says he likes the whole kaupapa behind the Ahuwhenua Trophy awards, especially how it focuses on Māori achievement and celebrates success as Māori in the dairy farming industry.
The couple are using their successes to help others where they can.
But in telling their story they are also mindful of the feelings of the victim’s whānau.
“A family has lost a father, uncle, brother and husband and we respect their grief and loss,” said Nikki.
Ben is working alongside police to help break the cycle of domestic violence – the violence that he inflicted on his own family until Nikki urged him to get help.
They also offer support, by way of phone calls, meetings over a coffee or a simple chat, to whoever needs it.
And they have plans that involve bettering themselves and helping others.
Nikki said the short-term goal was to move into management; the long-term goal is farm ownership.
And from being homeless and living out of their car in 2016, the couple have bought a house and are planning to build equity and use that to start buying their own stock.
When they realise the farm ownership dream they want to set it up as a transitional facility to help brothers go from the prison environment to the farm-working environment.
“We want to help the brothers move on from prison, start their training courses and get a hand-up into employment,” said Nikki.
“We have a whole iwi that is supporting us and we want to wrap our support around others who need it.”
In answer to a question about what an employer needed to do, Ben answered: “Be flexible and understanding.”
“You have to show trust,” he said.
When asked what being in a gang was like; Was it like Once Were Warriors?’, Ben couldn’t answer.
Nikki came to the rescue. “It’s worse,” she said. “Much worse.”
Ben said his goals now were clear: Leave crime, alcohol and drugs behind; look after and love his wife and his children; provide for his whānau; be good at farming; help others who need to be shown the way.
“I have paved the way. You can make it out,” he told the brothers.
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