Debbbie Sorensen

If you weren’t in the habit, 60 or so years ago, of checking out the big rugby league games at Carlaw Park in Auckland, you may not appreciate what a footballing force Bill (Boof) Sorensen was. The Kiwi selectors did. They had the young Tongan migrant in the New Zealand side before he was out of his teens. And he was there for 24 test matches.

There was more Sorensen power to come, too, because a much younger brother, Dave, and two famous nephews, Dane and Kurt Sorensen, also excelled in the Kiwis.

But, for some years now, another potent, skilful Sorensen has been in action.

That’s Debbie, the daughter of Bill and Olga. Naturally, Debbie shares the family’s fascination for rugby league, but her specialty has been making various health systems do a much better job of serving the needs of Pasifika people. Not just here in Aotearoa, but elsewhere in the Pacific, including Tonga, where her work has earned royal recognition.

Debbie is now leading Pasifika Futures, one of three agencies in charge of commissioning Whānau Ora programmes around the country — and, as she tells Dale in this interview, achieving outstanding results for Pacific families needing a hand.


Kia ora, Debbie. First of all, perhaps you can tell us who the Sorensens are.

Kia ora and mālō e lelei, Dale. Sorensen is a well-known Tongan family name. We hail from Vava’u, from the village of Leimātu’a and from Tongoleleka in Ha’apai.

But I guess our most significant claim to fame is that we’re the rugby league Sorensens — and Bill Sorensen, who played for New Zealand in the 1950s and ’60s, is my dad. So, league is in our blood.

Our family are Tongan and Danish, so we have Viking roots as well.

Let me say that I think it’s really important for everyone, but particularly for our young people, to understand our history, our connections and where we come from, and be comfortable with that. It gives us a sense of belonging and a sense of place.

In my family’s case, I think we’re very lucky to have variety and diversity in our bloodline and in our history, and to have so much connection to several cultures around the world. But, at the same time, we identify very strongly with our Tongan family and our Tongan history.

My father and his younger siblings came to New Zealand as part of the migration out of Tonga about 70 years ago, when the Japanese came down into the Pacific during World War II.

We ended up in Ponsonby, with a number of other well-known Tongan families, like the Wolfgramms, the Sanfts, and the Guttenbeils.

Basically, any family in Tonga with a European parent or adult, particularly a father, was sent out of the country. That’s how we got here.

So, Boof Sorensen is your dad? He was great. I live in Otāhuhu, and I can tell you this Tongan league thing in recent weeks has been great, too. It’s been making the suburb shake. It’s been amazing. Beating Samoa. Beating the Kiwis. And nearly beating the Poms, too.

I live in Otāhuhu as well. Our family has lived there for 30 years. My son-in-law has been playing for Toa Samoa. So, we’ve had a little bit of conflict over that.

We were at the Hamilton game between Toa and Tonga. And all the Tongans were saying: “Debbie, what are you doing sitting with all those Samoan fans?” And I said: “Well, you know, Tonga is my past, but Samoa is likely to be my future as I look to this kid to look after us in our old age.”

Rugby league is an example of Pacific pride and passion, and of seeing the very best of our communities. When we look at the elegance with which the Tongan and Samoan teams have conducted themselves, when we look at the pride coming from our community, it tells us we have a strong and vibrant future ahead of us. It’s been truly fantastic.

It really is. We’ve witnessed a lot of magic over the last few weeks. It’s something we, as sports supporters, can learn from … Okay. So that’s the rugby league side from your dad. What about your mum? Is she Tongan?

No, my mother Olga is a very opinionated little Pālagi woman. She’s about four-and-a-half foot high and is the most passionate rugby league supporter you’ll ever see. She’s never played a game of football in her life. But she spends nearly every waking hour around footballers and has an opinion on everyone who plays the game.

When my father came to New Zealand, they were based in Ponsonby and my father’s older brother, Carl Sorensen, set up the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Ponsonby, which was really a hub for Tongan Seventh Day Adventists.

In many ways, the church replaced the village for new settlers coming from home. It was certainly a place to worship. But more than that, it was a place where we found our community in the absence of our villages and families.

Dad’s family then moved to a state house in Takapuna, which is where he met my mother. My mother‘s mother’s family came from Taranaki. Her mother was a cook at the hospital in Milford. Her father came from Bristol as a child. They were a very big working-class family as well. My father is one of 10, my mother one of eight. At Christmas time and family events, we had our own football team.

And I thought, growing up, that’s how everyone lived. I couldn’t imagine that a family might just be two people and one child. I don’t know how people lived like that because we’ve always had a cast of hundreds.

We’ve been very privileged, I think, to be surrounded by a close and caring family and have always lived our lives that way with multiple generations.

Even in my own family, in Otāhuhu, we’ve looked after my husband’s parents, and my mother lives with us. As do our children. And we’re about to have the next generation living with us as well. So we’ll have four generations on our property, which is fantastic.

My father was first picked for the Kiwis when he was 19. He was the youngest Kiwi player at that time. He was a young, handsome Tongan man with no money at all. They travelled by ship to Europe to play England and France, and he won all his spending money by playing poker on the boat. So, not only was he an elite sportsman, he was obviously a very crafty poker player.

How old were your parents when they married?

My mother tells me she first saw Dad when she was 16 and he was 15. She stalked him until he relented. They had to wait until they were 21 to get married because neither of their families approved of a mixed marriage, and they wouldn’t give permission.

In those days, the notion of marrying outside of your culture and outside of your community was very challenging, and I think that my parents were extremely brave. They told us later that love conquered all, but it was probably really hard.

My mother talks about how they were exposed to racism — both casual and not so casual, I suspect. People would say to her: “What’s it like living with one of them?”

And when my father coached rugby league in Australia, when I was a child, certainly in the country towns and in the country pubs, people were often a bit confused about whether he was Aboriginal or not — and, on that basis, whether he was allowed to drink in the pub.

So, we grew up learning what it was like to live in a blended cultural family. One of the things that happened to us as children was that we lost our language. And when I talked to my father about that, he said he felt that my brother and I needed to speak English as we grew up, because he wanted us to do well at school.

He felt that us speaking Tongan wasn’t going to serve us well for our future. So he wouldn’t speak Tongan in the house. He’d only speak Tongan when we were with the family, which was every weekend and at church. As a result, my brother doesn’t speak any Tongan, and my Tongan is a bit dodgy.

It’s a common thing in our generation that we lost our language as our families conformed to New Zealand society.

This story resonates, because I’m the product of a cross-cultural marriage — and I’m in one, too. I guess relationships like the one you’ve described paved the way for it to be accepted as mainstream now. But it certainly wasn’t back in the day. Let’s turn, though, to your years growing up.

Well, Dad coached rugby league in Australia for New South Wales Country and then we came back to New Zealand and settled in Papatoetoe, where we bought a house. As a result of being on the move, I went to 10 different primary schools. So, already, I was beginning to look like an at-risk child. The welfare agencies will tell you that moving your kids around can cause problems.

I was somewhat withdrawn as a child and felt overwhelmed by my family because, of course, the boys were reaching prominence in their rugby league careers.

Our life revolved around going to football at weekends — and my father and the boys were always off at training. There was no such thing as being a professional football player in those days. You worked and then you played football.

I was 16 when I left Otāhuhu College — and I left with my University Entrance. I didn’t go to university. No one in my family had gone to university. It wasn’t something that was seen as being possible. So I left school and I wandered up the road to the National Bank and got a job there.

Then I worked at Homai College, the school for the blind, and not long after that, I was accepted into a psychiatric nursing course at Kingseat. My father was horrified at that. He wanted me to be a nice banker or a nice teacher, not someone handling sick people — and even worse than that, crazy, sick people.

I took the job because I could stay in the nurses’ home. Being a nurse, you were pretty well paid. I was paid $11,000 a year, and that was a princely salary at that time. And I had a bit of independence because I wasn’t living under my father’s roof, as I’m quite sure many people would relate to.

What drew you to the field of psychiatry?

Psychiatry wasn’t something I’d seen as a vocation. It was really a pragmatic choice. However, having done the training, I found out that I come from a long line of village midwives and healers. And so, it became quite evident that there was something in my DNA that led me into this career of service and helping people.

As a psychiatric nurse, I learned quite quickly how to deal with the most difficult people. I think it taught me compassion and humility, too. And that put me in good stead for my future career.

I then ended up in a management role in the health sector. I was in the lucky position of working for Harold Titter, who’d been appointed as a Commissioner for the Auckland Hospital Board. I learned an amazing amount of skills from him as he reformed the Auckland health sector, and was also influential in reforming the whole country’s health system.

It seemed that I had a talent for starting new projects, being innovative and doing things differently. As a young woman, I was rather brash. I think people would’ve described me as being a bit aggressive. I learned that from my background of having to more or less fight for everything I got.

The present-day health scene for Māori and Pasifika is one where there’s still a great need for fight, isn’t there?

The disparity in health care for both Māori and Pacific people is shocking. To get systemic change, you have to be very upfront about what needs to change and why it needs to change.

I was in a lucky position working for the Health Funding Authority to be their first Pacific manager, and to work with a board of people who, once we presented the facts about the shameful state of Pacific health in New Zealand, gave us our first $2 million to set up Pacific clinics throughout Auckland.

That was 30 years ago, the beginning of the Pacific health sector. We then lobbied for an opportunity to influence policy. But to do that, you have to be in Wellington. My colleagues and I often joke now about conversations we had about who should go to Wellington to do this job of the Pacific Chief Advisor, because no one wanted to go. Why would you want to go if all your family and community are up here?

So, we tossed a coin. It was between Dr Colin Tukuitonga and myself — and I lost. So I went to Wellington. And when I started the job, I’d cry in my office every day because the work was really hard. People could be quite nasty, and everything was a struggle.

We had 50 percent of Pacific kids under the age of two being admitted to hospital. We had children dying unnecessarily. We really had to convince bureaucrats, ministers, governments, that something needed to done about this. And, actually, we knew the answer. It wasn’t about other people doing things to us or for us. It was about giving us an opportunity.

But then you came back up Auckland again.

Yes. I became one of the senior executives for Counties Manukau District Health Board. That was coming home. Back to Middlemore, where I’d worked as a young nurse amongst my own community.

And I was lucky enough to work for David Clark, who was chief executive at the time. He taught me about how you manage from a values base. And his primary value was that the people we were serving were the most important people. And the doctors and nurses who did that work were the second most important people.

As a manager, it was your job to look after all of those people. And if you didn’t do that, then go away and do something else.

After that, I set up a consultancy business called Health Specialists, which I’d been running with a colleague of mine, Dr Kiki Maoate, a Cook Island paediatric surgeon in Christchurch.

For 15 years, we’ve been working in Pacific countries, sending teams of specialist doctors and nurses to provide services and train our own doctors and nurses. Also, we’ve brought more than 100 patients a year to New Zealand, for treatment they wouldn’t otherwise get in their home countries.

For me, as a Tongan woman, being able to go home and serve in my home country has truly been a blessing. Being able to live in New Zealand but still contribute back home — I just feel so lucky.

For the last 15 years I’ve worked on a voluntary basis for the Tongan government. Helping develop projects and developing a health system in Tonga.

I understand that you’ve had high-level recognition for that service.

Yes, several years ago I was recognised by His Majesty and invested as a Commander Royal Crown of Tonga for my services to Tonga. That was a very humbling moment for me. And quite a surprise, because it’s unusual for a country to confer an award on people who don’t live there.

Serving your people and being recognised by your country is a wonderful thing. So, I’ve had a charmed life. A very charmed life.

I’m sure you’re fully deserving of what’s come your way. So congratulations on your wonderful career. And that career now includes setting up and heading Pasifika Futures which is intent on developing a more Pasifika and Māori way of approaching health. That’s what Tariana Turia was pushing for, isn’t it?

We just can’t thank Tariana enough — for her vision in setting up Whānau Ora and in demanding that the Crown provide resources for our families. Also in calling Crown agencies to account. Her courage and her vision in pursuing that dream were remarkable.

There was her incredible generosity, too, in acknowledging that our families were in need as well as those of her own people. That we have kinship ties across the Pacific. For Tariana to say: “I want to make a space for Pacific” took our breath away.

When all of this came about, 20 Pacific community organisations turned up in the boardroom of the Pacific Medical Association where I’ve been the CEO for 15 years now. And they said they wanted the PMA to become the Whānau Ora commissioning agency.

Initially, I said: “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t even know what this Whānau Ora stuff is. It’s a government thing. Go away, think hard about it, and then come back.” They duly came back, and they were deadly serious. So, we said: “Okay.”

It was an open tender process, a very long process — over 18 months where we had to compete against other agencies. But we talked to our community and put together a structure based on very strong principles: around self-determination, around believing that our families have a future and a hope. And if they’re just given the opportunity, they can do it themselves.

It’s about not being dependent on the state and about understanding that we know best for our families and our people.

So, we tendered and we got the contract. Four years on, we’re very proud of the work we’ve done and of our strong relationship with the other two commissioning agencies for Whānau Ora.

We didn’t anticipate when we started that it’d be so successful — and that our community would take it up with such passion. Today we have over 11,000 families and 60,000 Pacific individuals involved in Whānau Ora from Invercargill to Kaitaia.

Our communities have said: “This is working for us.” The results really are amazing. It’s a mystery to us, actually. But it’s clear that, if you give families the opportunity to determine the right pathway for them, and provide the resources, they’ll do well.

We’re actually lifting the Pacific education results across the country. And our families are doing things like reducing their debt by five percent or more. What’s impressive is the sheer willpower of people to say: “This is what we’re going to do” — and then they go out and do it.

In the last three years, we’ve had nearly 20 families buy their own homes. In Auckland. That’s a really big thing. And that’s through collective wealth and working with the more extended family-type model. But that’s what they wanted to do. They wanted their own homes, and away they went.

We have more than 300 kids in apprenticeships. It really is, I think, a challenge to that model of government dependency and welfare dependency and the Crown saying: “We’ll just keep handing out money and you just do as we say.”

So, that’s been a real revelation, I think, to everyone.

Of course, we’ve had many people asking: “Why are we spending so much money in this way?” But if we think of the millions of dollars that are spent by MSD and welfare agencies, and if we think of the appalling outcomes of the previous CYFS and the justice system, how can we not take an opportunity to do things differently? How could we not hand our communities the opportunity to fix the challenges we face every day?

I often speak with Winston and he says: “Hey, we can’t be dishing out money on anecdotal evidence.” But I’ve been impressed by the data being collated by the commissioning agencies to support the success they point to. How important is that, Debbie? And how do you quantify what it’s worth to see a family develop stronger self-esteem or confidence. How do you satisfy the politicians who fund the programmes?

That was a real challenge when we started. But we took the position that this wasn’t to provide data to the government. Instead, it was to provide information to families. We took the position that families need to know how they’re doing.

Families need to assess their financial state. So we helped them with that. That then translated into us having quite a lot of data to present to the Crown and to say: “These are the challenges families are facing.”

So, for example, in the Canterbury region, we’ve shown that 60 percent of Pacific families earn $20,000 or less a year. Now, when you have $20,000 — and this is family income, not individual income — how can you afford to even pay that $3 for your prescription? How can you afford to put petrol in the car, or get on the bus to get to where you need to go?

Being able to present those numbers in front of ministers and a government is really important.

But it’s even more important to give families hope that change can happen. That they can do this. And to show them how well they’re doing. So that’s been really good.

Then there’s smoking. Tariana was such a champion about that. Well, the smoking cessation rate in our 11,000 Whānau Ora families is 30 percent. Compare that to all the money that goes into the Ministry of Health smoking cessation programmes where their results are 15 percent. And not one of the families that we’re involved in goes through Ministry of Health-funded programmes.

What Whānau Ora does is challenge the way that government has spent its money. And all we ask as agencies is that the same accountability we have to show for our spend and our results should apply to Crown agencies, who are responsible for the welfare of our families and our communities.

We’re now getting a more collaborative Māori-Pasifika approach to the health challenges we share, aren’t we?

Yes. And I think it’s important. We have strength and power in coming together to highlight the challenges we face and to leverage action. But the solutions are unique, according to the composition of each group. Solutions that work for a group of Māori families will be different from those for a Pacific group.

And then we have families that are both Māori and Pasifika, and they will choose what the best solution is for them.

The trick is to give people choice, but we’re all in this together. And there’s no doubt that we’re the future of Aotearoa and the future of the region.

Everyone wants to be us. All of those nice Pālagi people in Ponsonby have a tapa lightshade. All of those Pālagi men, when they get a bit frisky, they all want to do the haka. In the future, everyone will have a Māori or Pacific grandchild or great-grandchild. So, I think we have an obligation to work together to make a difference.

What’s next for you? What have you got in your mind to focus on over the next 15 or 20 years?

Well, I’d really like to see Pacific countries win both the Rugby and the Rugby League World Cups. That’s my number one aspiration. Let’s do that first, Dale.

But I have a little bit more work to do here in growing the capacity of our younger people. I don’t think I’ve finished my service yet, either to this work or to my country. I’ll do the work that my family, my community and my country needs me to do, because that’s what I’ve always done.

In the background, I’m enjoying a generation of grandchildren that are coming through. Our first grandchild is a Tongan-Samoan grandchild, Lilly-Rose Ah Mau.

We’re very proud of her. And we have a Cook Island and Tongan grandchild coming. It’s satisfying to see that diversity reflected in our grandchildren, and it’s important to make sure that they have a bright future as they grow up.


© E-Tangata, 2017

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