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A Champion

In Survivor NZ, which aired earlier this year, contestant MATAI’A SALATIELU (SALA) TIATIA found a place for himself among fifteen strangers in Nicaragua; and, as the quest to ‘survive’ unfolded on TV, he secured a place in the hearts of many Kiwi viewers.

A man of integrity, loyalty and passion, a crusader for young people, and a hero for families, his own in particular, it came as no surprise that he received the People’s Choice Award at the final of Survivor NZ on July 5.

Sala talks openly and passionately about his beautiful family, his time in Nicaragua and the work he does with young people; and he shares his insights into establishing relationships with our kids.


I have the most beautiful family in the world. I am absolutely rich because of them. I am married to my Maori Queen, Danette Abraham-Tiatia, and I have six amazing heartbeats: Lanakila (man – 16), Tyla (woman – 15), Zion (boy – 12), Maellani (girl – 9), Mekhi (boy – 8) and Karana Tu Whaiora (girl – 5).

We are a mixed family, but we make it work. We make it work because leaning on past hurts and bad decisions only makes it hard for our kids to grow in love. So forgiveness has been the main ingredient that has made this complicated mixed family a family that works and loves genuinely and intentionally. I will steal a line my wife used in her vows on our wedding day because it best describes us as a whanau: ‘we are not perfect – but we are imperfectly perfect’.

Regardless of how little time we get to spend with each other, when we do – which is during the school holidays – we make the most of it: having real conversations and plenty of laughter, and creating memories.


Definitely the hardest part of being on Survivor NZ was homesickness. Away for two months with zero contact with my loved ones, it was very hard to get up and want to do anything. I just wanted to go home or at least see their faces, hear their voices, smell their farts (lol)… anything that reminded me of them! In that situation, you yearn for their closeness and love. You don’t realise how important family is until it is taken away and you are on your own with 15 strangers. The loneliness is heavy.

I am a relational guy and able to connect easily with people and make some good relationships – some closer than others – but nothing gives you more worth and purpose than the loves – the heartbeats – of my life: my Wife and my Kids. I know this sounds clichéd and super cheesy, but next to my faith in Jesus, Dan and the kids give me a reason to get up every morning and be who I am and do what I do.


I run an Alternative Education School here in Otautahi, called Te Kaupapa Whakaora, which is part of Te Ora Hou, Otautahi. I ran the Porirua Alternative School in Wellington for six years before moving down to Christchurch five years ago to run Te Kaupapa Whakaora.

One of the challenges of my mahi (work) is the stigma, which continues to hover over Alternative Education, that only dumb kids that commit crime come to this sort of school. The kids that come, and their families, hear that message, and tend to start believing it. It takes me and my team some intentional time of setting a culture that empowers them to start thinking outside of that and to work towards proving society wrong: by changing their bad behaviour with good behaviour; by changing their bad habits with good habits. That is the beauty of the organisation and the school that I work for. It’s actually not mahi (work): it’s a lifestyle and a whanau – a place that really is about people, whanau and communities.


The biggest thing I do when it comes to working with young people and their whanau is that I care: I love them like they have never been loved before! To have the right to educate young people, and speak into their lives, you first need connection and relationship – and these can only form with care and love.
Then, I create the opportunity for them to see what I see in them – a champion! They just don’t know it yet.
So my team and I journey with them to help them see what we see and believe what we believe. That is the ultimate goal: that our tauira, our Rangatahi, leave this safe space and head into the real world as healthy contributing participants of their whanau and communities.

The most powerful lesson I have learnt, both as a dad and in my work with young people that come into my school, is that: Every child craves to be cared for. Every child wants to be loved. Every child wants that significant adult to believe in them and cheer for them like they’re a true champion! How can we do this? Listen. Give constructive feedback that’s sandwiched with praise. Love, and create memories and experiences that last a lifetime.

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