Most people find it challenging enough to build a career while raising a family, without ever contemplating also leading a crusade to help the community’s most disadvantaged. But Bernice Breckon is not most people.
Don’t be fooled by the cheeky smile and the infectious laugh – this lady doesn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. When she identified a ‘cavernous hole’ in her Tauranga community’s health and education programmes, Bernice couldn’t sit on her hands and look the other way.
“I saw first-hand young people falling through gaps in our society. It was – it is – a tragedy. And the more I learned, the more tragic and devastating it seemed.
“But it doesn’t need to be that way – we can be part of a change to help our young, the rangatahi of our nation, to not only survive, but ultimately thrive; we just need the will, the knowledge and the support. When there’s a need, I have to respond. I’m not one to do things by halves or to shy away when the going gets tough.”
She is of Ngāti Whawhakia and Mahanga descent from Waikato Tainui but was brought up in the small town of Tūrangi.
This is a person who as a mother of five and a grandmother of two knows about hardship and disadvantage; yet this is also a person who at the age of 41 decided she wanted to join the glitterati and become a Hollywood actress and screenwriter – so she did. Doubt those credentials? Fact-check IMDB: yes, she’s there alright.
It was Bernice’s personal experience of (literally) life and death challenges confronting her and her whānau which shocked her into action.
“Although I was on a trajectory of high achievement – ‘success’ – I realised our kids, our rangitahi, were increasingly misunderstood, misdiagnosed and, as a result, tragically under-achieving; while my achievements were being branded successes, the young people I was seeing at home in New Zealand were being branded as ‘failures’ and ‘problems’.”
In 2020 she started a company to work with Oranga Tamariki (OT) providing care and protection for kids with extreme highly complex behaviours, disabilities and neurodiversity. Her organisation, Te Rotonga Poumanaaki (TRP) supported kids in need, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in hotel rooms provided by OT.
By 2021 she began working with the Ministry of Education’s Intensive Wraparound Service supporting rangatahi with mentoring. By the end of the that year they were supporting young people referred by the Tauranga DHB and disability services.
“Now the door had opened, we could see a tsunami was heading in our direction,” she recalls.
“By mid-2022 we were focusing on rangatahi who were disengaged and finding it difficult to learn in a neurotypical environment; this group was often excluded from mainstream schools because of their behaviour. Often this indicated potential trauma, diagnosed or undiagnosed conditions, criminal offending (or at risk of criminal offending), anti-social behaviours with peers, lack of positive community interaction and a tremendously distorted view of the school environment and all it represents; rangatahi in this space are operating in flight, fright, fight and or flock mode – what I call survival/defensive mode.”
At TRP’s one-year anniversary Bernice presented The Gap – an approach to learning called Neurodiverse Individualised Learning (NIL). NIL is designed to assist professionals, schools and whānau to understand challenging behaviours and call for help.
“We decided to pilot this concept in an alternative education space, Baypathways. During our pilot we encountered rangatahi disengaged from their work who had decided their only pathway was jail and a life on ‘the benefit’.
“They shared nothing of their dreams or aspirations, only that they were tough/hard and how drugs, alcohol and crime were all they wanted to do.
“Each session we were able to identify what worked and what didn’t. We discovered early on they were not interested in schoolwork, so we opted to focus them on ‘themselves’, their wellbeing and to understand who they are, how they think, why they think that way and acknowledgement that it’s okay to think differently from others.”
Te Rotonga Poumanaaki turned a corner when they found rangatahi engaging and participating. Focus switched to empowering them to navigate anything in their lives – and so the Whanaketanga Programme was born.
“I knew we had a programme that could successfully benefit rangatahi in ‘The Gap’ space. It was time to move the business office out of my home. We found a space that could hold up to 30 to execute Whanaketanga, mentoring support services and educational support,” Bernice says with a sigh of relief.
“I also wanted a space for my film production company, iFlow Productions,” she admits.
With limited to no funding, Bernice invested her savings (and funds from supportive whānau) to lease the old Radio NZ School premises in Grey St, Tauranga.
At that stage they were working with Tauranga City Council which was then looking for hub spaces for rangatahi in the CBD area.
In April 2023 TRP was approached by Tauranga Attendance Services who had heard about their programmes and mentoring services.
This led to strengthening the partnership with the Ministry of Education and building positive relationships with schools in Tauranga.
They have had more than 30 young people referred to their space.
“What do we need?” Bernice is very direct: “In our space we need our kids funded, schools to support them if they are still enrolled, and if rangatahi are excluded from school (they do not have a managing school), then we need the ministry to fund an experienced teacher who knows how to work with our Gap kids.”
TRP are also currently working on a project supported by the Mental Health Foundation called Whakamutua Atu – Cut it Out.
It is a campaign for youth around stopping stigma and discrimination against those who suffer mental health issues. The online web series of up to five 10-minute episodes, includes interviews with Christchurch rapper and youth advocate King Cass, and plans include interviews with world-famous Sevens coach, Sir Gordon Tietjens, local MP Sam Uffindell and musician Tiki Taane.
IDK Cafe (I Da Know Ltd)
In 2023 Bernice and her team decided to purchase a cafe so they could have a real business space in which to teach rangatahi about every aspect of running a business – in real-time.
“A cafe seemed like a great business model for providing a range of core business disciplines. But more importantly, it provides a setting for community interactions with people from all walks of life. This setting allows us to teach our rangatahi to interact with community in a positive way.”
It is a place where the young people can gain work experience and also learn life skills by cooking meals for the class.
In typical, matter-of-fact Bernice Breckon-fashion she adds, “We were working with Tauranga City Council with this concept, but it didn’t eventuate, so I purchased the cafe myself to make sure it happened.”
IFlow Productions Ltd
Despite her crusade to improve the prospects and outlook for the community’s young, Bernice admits her passion is still film and TV. She is an accomplished actor, filmmaker, producer and editor.
After returning home to Sydney from Los Angeles in 2018 she decided to write a TV series based in NZ. So, coming back to NZ in 2021 to start Te Ratonga Poumanaaki Ltd, she says it just made sense to setup a production company in Tauranga.
“My main focus is to build the filming industry in Tauranga Moana, to encourage productions to come here. We have so many amazing practitioners living here – it’s logical to build the industry here. I’m connected with Film BOP which focuses on attracting producers to the Bay of Plenty. We offer workshops to support our industry practitioners and up-and- comers. This includes screen writers, ‘Women in Film’, all guild members and anyone interested in any aspect of film.
“Our Grey Street space also houses Bay of Plenty Actors Studio (BOPAS), an acting school with classes attended by approximately 140 rangatahi and adults.”
Owner Tanya Horo (who also happens to be Bernice’s acting agent), runs the only local acting agency in Tauranga. Bernice is always looking for opportunities for the actors on their books for local auditions and work.
Bernice has been working with well-known international industry identity Bryan Norton from Living Pictures Ltd. Last year they developed the Kiriata A-Z Filmmaking Program where he will teach industry skills. “We hope to expose interested youth to all aspects of the film industry. At the end of the course they may wish to continue on to work experience on one of TRPs productions.”
Bryan has worked on a few projects for TRP including filming for a documentary with many of TRP’s otherwise disengaged rangatahi in an alternate education space. They also shot a short film The Little Ghost as part of BOPAS Camp 2023.
IFlow Productions is about to embark on a new TV show (or rather revive an old show), that will see the crew travelling through all the towns of NZ.
Finally, a project in development at the minute is IDK Dairies, a TV series shot at IDK Cafe. The story is premised around two middle-aged, ‘dysfunctional’ ladies who inherit a cafe from their carer/mother and how they navigate their lives and running the café … watch this space.
Could she do everything by herself? “My husband, John has had to put with me and my adventures – there have been many,” she says with a laugh. “He’s extremely patient and I couldn’t have got here without his support and that of our tamariki and moko.”
“Oh, I should also mention TPR’s new IT & Telco service, we are now an internet service provider. We launch November 10th, 2023.”