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Healthy together

Nurse Mele Fonua Veituna decided to create a challenge for Pasifika people to improve their health. Reporter Matai O’Connor went along for a walk up Kaiti Hill the other day to see what it’s all about.

Encouraging people to work out and eat healthily can be a challenge, but a Gisborne nurse has used her initiative to help over 40 Pasifika families turn their lives around.

Ministry of Health statistics state that in the year July 2018 to June 2019, 87 percent of the Pacific community were overweight or obese.

Pasifika people also have the highest percentage of diabetes out of all ethnicities — 11.2 percent have diabetes, and 14.6 percent have type 2 diabetes.

Nurse Mele Fonua Veituna sees the real life impacts of these statistics in her work on the medical ward at Gisborne Hospital.

The health issues motivated her to create a challenge for Pacific Island communities to become healthier.

It started in May when New Zealand moved down from Alert Level 4 to 3. May is special for the Tongan community — the first Sunday of the month is a celebration for children, the second Sunday is mothers' day and the third Sunday is fathers' day.

They couldn't go to church to celebrate as they would have normally, and so Mele thought about creating a Facebook challenge.

She asked people to do 30 push-ups for 30 days and post videos of themselves to prove they actually did the work.

“One of the fathers was 66 years old. It was absolutely amazing he was doing it every day,” she said.

Her father died of heart failure, which motivated her to do something to remember him for fathers day and hopefully help people become healthier.

There was a prize for the winner of that first challenge, but Mele said it was too hard to figure out who to give it to so she decided to put it to a vote. But that turned out to be too hard to decide too, so everyone got a prize for their efforts.

Once that challenge ended, people asked Mele, “well, what's next?”

“That's when I decided to carry on and turn this into a weight loss, healthy eating challenge,” Mele said.

At the end of May, 26 Tongan people signed up to be part of the first round of the six-week Healthy Challenge, or as it is in Tongan, “Pole ki he mo'ui lelei”. They were asked to register with $20 to help pay for the prizes and any other costs involved.

Three months on, participants are in their third round of six weeks, and into their third week.

A new challenge is posted each week. In this round, the first was “lose yourself at winter” with a focus on obesity. In the second week diabetes awareness was the focus, and the third and current round is stroke awareness, “because a stroke can happen at anytime,” Mele said.

As a way to keep everyone accountable and to make sure they are working out, Mele made a private Facebook group where the participants can express themselves however they want without the fear of judgement from random people online.

Friends of Mele online also joined in on the challenge. A family living in America and another in Australia have joined in too.

And there are members throughout New Zealand, in Auckland, Rotorua, Wellington and the South lsland.

“This is for everyone and anyone, I just want to help our people get healthier.”

The challenge is open to everyone. Anyone can join in no matter who they are but only as long as they are wanting to become healthy.

Families and friends

The group often “go live” when walking up Kaiti Hill.

During the first round people lost from 6kg to 23.4kg in the six weeks.

“That is a lot coming from not losing anything,” Mele said.

After the success of the first round, they said to Mele “please can we keep doing this, maybe even till December so we look good for summer”. So Mele decided to keep doing it.

“It is hard for Pacific Island communities to raise their hand and ask for help but for some reason everyone enjoys doing this,” Mele said.

In the second round 62 people joined up, including children and teenagers.

Some over-50-year-olds have stayed from the first round.

“They are all into this. They are going out there by themselves or in groups, and doing the exercises they need to do,” Mele said.

Lupe Grant joined in the first challenge and has stuck with it since, helping Mele with anything she needs to keep the challenge going.

A part of the challenge is a weekly recipe that Mele posts in the Facebook group.

There is no set routine. There is only the recipe.

They can do whatever they want, it is not forced upon them.

“This whole challenge is about not forcing people to do things. It's about motivating each other,” Mele said.

The recipe is what they need to follow for that week, how many times they need to walk up Kaiti Hill, or how many times they need to do a certain workout, ideas of healthy foods and what they cannot eat.

“You have to follow the recipe otherwise the end result won't be tasty,” Mele said.

After the second round ended, Mele and Lupe, with everyone else decided to keep going.

In the third round they had new members who are Samoan, Fijian, Indian and Maori.

Any nationality is welcome.

Every Saturday the participants go to Mele's house to be weighed.

She uses her medical knowledge to check their blood pressure and blood sugar level (BSL).

If there are any issues she refers them to their GP to get checked up as soon as possible.

She sums up the results and shares them in the private Facebook group.

“This is a lot of work that all comes from the heart,” Lupe Grant says.

“Mele is a full-time worker, wife and mother of two. She's a super hero,” he said.

Motivation from others and the social connection are reasons why they continue, Mele said.

“When we see a 5-year-old walking up Kaiti Hill at 5am while a 30-year-old is still asleep this motivates us — why can't the young ones be doing what the elders are?” Mele said.

“Whatever is important to them they post it up or go live to keep each other in the loop.”

The plan going forward is to keep doing this until they hit whatever their target is.

Once they reach their goal, they will need to maintain it.

“Maintaining it is hard, but the main point is they have changed their lifestyle to become healthier and seen the benefits of healthy eating and exercising regularly,” Mele said.

FEELING BETTER: The Tongan community have been becoming healthier by participating in a challenge initiated by Gisborne nurse Mele Fonua Veituna. Pictures by Liam Clayton
Generational change: Paki Koka enjoying the walk up Titirangi Kaiti Hill while pushing baby Fataiuoleva Tupe.
Enjoying the feeling: Paki Koka, Veisinia Grant Jr, Lupe Faletau Grant and Ma'ate Mataele love the feeling of conquering Titirangi every day.
Run or walk: Simi Tufunga runs ahead of Mele (left) and Hemaloto Veituna.
Get involved: Families of those who join the challenge also take part. From left, Luseane Tupe, Sione Tupe jr, Ane Maile jr, Lesinga Tufunga, Manu Tufunga, and Paini Suluka enjoy the walk up the hill together. All pictures by Liam Clayton

  1. Malia Paea, USA says:

    Just amazing!! Grateful for Mele ❤️ Mele you’re awe- so – some ! Awesome 👏