What started out as a challenge set by his father, turned into a foreign aid-style mission to Niue for 17-year-old Matt Wilson (Ngāi Tahu) of Masterton.

The Wairarapa teenager, a budding architect and designer, has undertaken a project to landscape and build a day-bed area for elderly patients at the hospital on the island of Niue.

“I just hope to achieve a better way of life for the people in the aged care facility,” says Matt. “I enjoy helping people and designing things so it’s a good thing to do.”

The idea for the project was sparked by, Matt’s dad, Garry Wilson, who set him a challenge to embark on an educational adventure – one that involved designing, building and then donating a structure to a community in need.  There were a few conditions, including having an overseas element and the requirement to self-fund the project through sponsorship, donations and fundraising.

“I think it’s important that parents take an active role in opening up the world to their children as they get to the end of their schooling years,” says Garry Wilson.
“I suspect most kids don’t have any idea about what they want to do – and to kick them out of the nest without an initial career path or goal is failing them.”

Matt agrees with his dad: “I’ve got skills and experience that should set me up for life – and I wish this would get me automatic entrance to architecture school; but sadly I don’t think it does.”

Garry Wilson, who has been to Niue a number of times, suggested the small island nation to Matt because it relies heavily on overseas funding for major infrastructure projects and has limited resources of its own.

After liaising with the local community, government officials, hospital staff, and other interested parties, as well as New Zealand High Commissioner to Niue, Mark Blumsky, Matt settled on developing an area for the aged to escape their rooms and relax in.

“The old hospital was destroyed by Cyclone Heta in 2004 and rebuilt near the airport. The aged care unit is attached to the hospital with eight elderly people sharing four rooms, and they are well looked after but they can’t really escape their rooms,” said Matt.

Matt got a team from Wellington’s architecture school at Victoria University on board.

He also received help from the architectural firms, First Light Studio and Darryl Silverwood to help him come up with a suitable design.

That design consisted of a day-bed structure that can be configured into four separate rooms or one large meeting room, by moving internal walls. The shipping container, once onsite is converted into a kitchen, laundry and toilet. “This allows the area to be multifunctional and used by the community as a whole because I really wanted the old folk to be part of the community again,” said Matt.

“Matt accepted the initial challenge thinking it would be simple and reasonably easy,” says his father. “But when he decided on the hospital project I think the focus shifted away from him to those who deserve something special in their later years. I’ve been so proud of how he has grown over the last 15 months.”

Matt secured support from around 50 companies around New Zealand, who donated $75,000 worth of product or labour toward the project. “It was such a wonderful project that everyone just wanted to help as much as they could, there is no way I could have done it without their help. I can’t thank them enough,” said Matt.

After the design phase, Matt and a small team did as much pre-assembly as they could before packing everything into the shipping container and sending it to Niue with the help of Kiwirail and Matson shipping. A team of 11, including five of Matt’s school friends from Rathkeale College in Masterton, then travelled over to Niue on 5 July.

“We wanted the area to have a name that indicates the way it was built and what it’s to be used for. We thought that it would be nice to symbolise where it came from and who it was given to.

I remembered that the river that runs past our home and school is called the Ruamahanga, which means the joining of two.
This sounded like a good starting point because it has taken two communities to make it happen. We asked the local iwi for advice and they gave us a couple of suggestions.

“We chose to call the area Ruamahana which means ‘warm haven,’ a place to feel the warmth of friendship, a place to feel culturally and spiritually connected, a place to enjoy being elderly.

“We also wanted a physical reminder of the connection between the building team and the locals so went back to our river, the Ruamahanga.  At school we have a tradition called ‘rock running’, which involves running with rocks from the river to where they are needed around the school. Niue is often called ‘The rock of Polynesia’ so I thought it would be fitting if we took one of our rocks to their rock.

“That rock was placed into a wall we made from their local rock. It symbolises the joining of our community with theirs and every time they look at it or touch it, they will remember us.”

Matt and Garry Wilson with the building team.

Matt and Garry Wilson with the building team.

Matt with the nursing staff.

Matt with the nursing staff.

The new rock wall and signage.

The new rock wall and signage.