Award recognises effort to overcome adversity

High-achieving Gore teenager Natalia Hamilton prepares to coach young swimmers at the town's...
High-achieving Gore teenager Natalia Hamilton prepares to coach young swimmers at the town's aquatic centre earlier this week, ahead of receiving a Prime Minister’s Oranga Tamariki Award yesterday. PHOTO: RICHARD DAVISON
Nothing about Southland teenager Natalia Hamilton’s life has been ordinary, but receiving an Oranga Tamariki Prime Minister’s Award is definitely a bit special.

The 17-year-old Gore High School pupil was one of 28 young people aged 16-18 who received the award in Wellington yesterday afternoon, including five others from the South Island.

The awards, which come with attached scholarships in recipients’ areas of interest worth $3000 or more, are made to high achievers who have experienced the care system and overcome adverse circumstances to succeed.

Natalia receives an Outward Bound scholarship worth $4000, which will allow her to travel to Nelson for a 21-day course next year.

She said she was "pretty excited" to receive the award, although the experience had seemed "a bit unreal".

"I’ve worked really hard to push myself, and to become the person others told me I couldn’t be, so this is special."

Five years ago, getting recognition from the Prime Minister would have seemed an even more unreal prospect for the self-described "angry, self-reliant" 12-year-old who came under the wing of seasoned Gore foster mum Tarsh Campbell.

"Longford [Intermediate, in Gore] was the ninth school I’d been to since I was 5. My life with my birth mother was toxic for me and my four brothers.

"There just wasn’t enough of anything, ever - affection, parenting, food - and we were always on the move for her to escape Oranga Tamariki and the social workers.

"Aged 6 I started cooking for the family, and it was saveloys, peas and potatoes basically every night from then on."

Always the new kids in town and always "different-looking" through poverty, she and her siblings were often bullied, always on alert, and never able to settle to learning.

About three years behind when she arrived in the care of Mrs Campbell, she said that soon changed.

"Initially I was suspicious of this mean lady trying to be my mum. But Tarsh set boundaries, forced me to read every day, and I soon caught up."

Swimming became another outlet for Natalia, and she picked up 17 competitive ribbons along the way.

"No matter how hard I hit the water, it would still be there and not care. It helped me feel calmer."

Now the industrious teenager helps others develop their aquatic skills, working as a coach and instructor at the local pool 13 hours a week.

Keen to give something back when she leaves school, the "hands-on" outdoors enthusiast wants to become a police youth worker.

"I’d like to help others in similar situations to mine.

"At the end of the day, we’re just kids trying to find our way like anyone else, stuck in a system that sometimes isn’t very kind.

"People’s judgement just helps reinforce those negative ideas and can hold you back.

"Treat us like people, not aliens. You might be surprised what we can do."

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