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Sean Delany, Maori health worker who has overcome his own troubled past

January 21st, 2011
By David Armstrong

The path taken by Sean Delaney from his childhood in the far north to his work in mental health at Te Awhina marae has been far from straight and narrow, but rather it has been filled with experiences good and bad that have led to his current dedication to the wellbeing of Motueka people, particularly youth.

Sean is open about events in his troubled past, culminating in a stretch in prison which provided the "huge wake-up call" for him to become a devoted parent and a determination to help other young people avoid the traps that he fell into himself.

Sean Delany was born 37 years ago to a Maori mother (his iwi is Te Aupouri) and staunch English tradition on his father's side. "I had the best of both worlds," he says.

At an early age they moved to Te Kao, north of Kaitaia. Right from the start, he says, the mix of indigenous and European influences gave him the basis for his later balanced view on race relations, politics and social life.

He went to an area school which was, in fact, the first "native school" in New Zealand. "Education has always been a high priority for our iwi," he says. Several highly respected educational leaders were associated with the school. "I really cherish those days at school." Church was also an early influence.

"My dad was really cool. He had strong European views he'd grown up with on how things should be, but over the years that's changed to a more bicultural accommodation. Likewise for me, I had very strong political views back then around issues such as the Treaty. The slogan 'The Treaty was a fraud' was just part of life.

"But then my father would take us to his family in Wellington for a week or two each year where it was a whole other way of life, very English, so I got a balance upbringing."

Coming to Motueka he found far fewer Maori influences. "I had racist views when I was growing up, and it's taken me years to see where truth lies and appreciate people for who they are," he says. "I'm seeing a wider picture now."

But it wasn't all roses in those early years. He also remembers the effect that casual use of alcohol and drugs and violence wrought on the community. Those who saw the movie "Boy" in cinemas in 2010 will understand when Sean says that that was just what he experienced in his own community. "It was so close to home for me. People were finding it very funny, but I was crying."

"The alcohol and drug (marijuana) culture influenced me from an early age, so through all my schooling I was struggling with that," he says. His father was a barman at the pub and alcohol was a big part of their social life, taken for granted. "So there were both good and bad influences going on in my early life."

He left school about 1990 after School Certificate, moved to Auckland and began a long sequence of taking courses in occupations ranging from video making and editing to forestry, pruning, aquaculture, carpentry and fishing. "I was learning anything and everything."

A period of time in the textile industry, designing clothes. But he didn't complete the training. "At the time I was really struggling with who I was and to find my place in life, and I was also partying up a lot, which had a huge impact on my work life."

He got heavily involved in the drug scene for a couple of years, but in 1995 he tried to break away from it, doing a deep sea fishing course in Westport under a Waitangi Fisheries scholarship and then working in the trawling industry for three years. Again he saw the "good side and the ugly side" of people he worked with as he got to know himself better.

In 1998 he met his wife-to-be, Tania, and a year later they had their first child, Cora. "It was a bit of a shock to me, dealing with fatherhood but at the same time still partying and dealing with my own issues, alcohol and drugs."

Next came a decision to try to further develop his musical talents. Sean tried to get into the Nelson School of Music but missed out, so instead got into a music course in Motueka at the marae, learning under the legendary Don Manunui. He also took part in a Maori course and found his heart being pulled toward his cultural upbringing. "Coming back to the marae was really grounding for me."

But his "goals were still a bit askew". Dreams of being a rock star and all the fame, alcohol and drugs that went with that scene were conflicting with family life and relationship difficulties (they'd had their second child), and Sean finished up falling "off the wagon". He was sentenced to six months inside for domestic violence, and served three months.

"That was a real wake-up call for me," he says. "I tell you, it was the best thing that could have happened to me. I had to re-assess where I was in life.

"While I was in there I gave my heart to the Lord. I said, 'Okay boss, where am I going? I've tried my ways and this is what's happened.' It had always been there, but I'd neglected my faith for a long time. I wasn't interested. There had been lots of signs over the years, but I'd ignored them."

He met others who had also chosen to move away from their own destructive paths and so he came out a changed man. He joined the church and rebuilt his relationship with Tania (they married in 2005), with whom he has since had two further children with another on the way.

He got a job in 2002 as caretaker at Te Awhina marae. "I was back home! Meeting and getting to know the local iwi." He went back to study and gained a three-year degree in Maori studies through correspondence and block courses in Otaki. He did several anger management courses in Nelson and ended up being a co-facilitator to help others like himself.

In 2006 he got a newly set up job at Te Awhina working in "mental health under the guise of kaupapa Maori, using Maori practices and interventions but also working with our western knowledge". He is still happily working in this capacity.

Sean has been working with the Motueka Baptist Church, and is involved in several counselling and programmes for people, particularly but not only Maori, who have fallen off the rails in various ways. His commitment to this new approach to life he remembers stems from his early days when the whanau and iwi instilled in him the value of helping people.

"I can hear them saying, 'Make yourself useful!' That's all I really want to be. If I can offer some inspiration and guidance to others, that's awesome. If I can steer young ones off the path I took ...."

Whanau is now so important to him, and he really enjoys taking his kids "going home" up north to his iwi every year or so for a holiday so they can learn more about their wider family.

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