Gangs, gratitude & giving back: Dave Letele’s journey to being a better man

The community hero reveals how he used heartbreak to turn his life around
Robert Trathen

There are very few days when Dave Letele doesn’t have to relive his own painful, traumatic past.

The former professional boxer and rugby league player-turned-motivational speaker and community leader, 44, spent his childhood surrounded by gang members. These days, he spends his life trying to help as many people as he can “break the cycle” of crime, gangs and prison that for a significant percentage of New Zealand society is sadly the norm. And the reason he is so in demand is because he followed that same path – and broke the cycle himself.

When the Weekly catches up with Dave – known as Brown Buttabean, and founder of BBM (Buttabean Motivation), a fitness movement and community support organisation – he’s enjoying some precious time with his family: wife Koreen, 38, and sons Tavita, 18, who studies commerce at AUT University, Fabian, 14, and six-year-old Brook. Eldest son William, 22, isn’t home as he’s just finished his engineering degree.

“These guys – my family – they’re my backbone,” says Dave, who is a semi-finalist in this year’s New Zealander of the Year. “Doing what I do can really get me down. When I come home to my family, I’m not the nicest sometimes. I can be short, angry, frustrated and tired, and I don’t want to talk, which is hard for Koreen to live with. But this is what I do – I’m so driven to help where I can.”

Earlier this year, the family enjoyed a much-needed break in Mount Maunganui, where they have a permanent caravan which has been renovated by Koreen and her dad Mike to fit the family.

“It’s our happy place,” explains Dave. “I couldn’t do what I do without my amazing wife and family, and the caravan is where we can put work down and just be together.”

“Dave isn’t a natural ocean or camping person, but he does really well,” laughs Koreen about how her 1.91-metre husband fits into a caravan with a bunch of teenage boys. “This year, he even bought a boogie board and some flippers to see if he could catch a wave. He didn’t, but he gave it a good try!”

Dave’s happy place is the caravan Koreen renovated from shabby to chic!

Later this year, Dave, who is of Māori and Samoan descent, will be back on our screens for the next two episodes of TVNZ’s Heavyweight with Dave Letele series, which tells the stories of people who have been caught in the same trap as he experienced and escaped.

The first episode of the Heavyweight series, which screened last year, focused on key moments in his life story, covering alcohol and addiction. The next two episodes will delve deeper into crime and gangs, and health and obesity, as Dave examines why so many Kiwis get trapped in the cycle they were born into.

“A lot of people believe it’s personal choice, but that implies we all start on a level playing field and we don’t,” he explains. “There are so many people just like me who are born into gangs from generations back. That’s not a level playing field.

“I’m trying to show that to help, we need to start with empathy and work out how to make things better for the kids, the grandkids – for every stage of the journey.

“Often I hear, ‘But they shouldn’t have had kids.’ Well, they have had the kid. They are here now. What can we do to help them? It’s about giving people the tools they need to break out.”

Every day – and often at nighttime too – Dave hears heartbreaking stories from people desperate for help. It’s abundantly clear that every one of the stories breaks his heart – but the compulsion to do whatever he can to make a difference is bigger than any personal pain.

Dave’s family (from left, back row) Fabian, Tavita and Koreen with youngest son Brook. “They’re my backbone.”

Dave recites stories that will crack even the hardest of hearts. For example, the father-of-four who reached out when the rotten floor of the tiny one-room emergency housing the family was living in gave way, and the kids hadn’t been to school for months; the man he met at a gas station who asked for help because he was living in a van with his wife and newborn baby; the child whose first experience of alcohol was having his mouth forced open and the liquid poured down his throat… These tales are the norm in Dave’s job.

Families ask him for food parcels when there are no more parcels or money left. There’s no “finish line” for this job. But because Dave has lived this, he understands the desperation.

“At Brook’s age, I was living in Australia,” says Dave, whose father joined the Mongrel Mob at 15, becoming Sergeant at Arms at 17, then president of the gang at 19.

“My dad was in jail for armed robbery. At 18, I went to university, but I started drinking. By the time I was 21, my dad and uncle were back in prison, and I ended up stabbing myself. I just wanted it all to end.

“I was off the rails – I hated my life. I wanted to be rich and provide for my family, but instead I wrecked my job, quit uni and lived in a drug house.”

At 25, Dave was in bad shape. Penniless and sleeping on a mattress on a floor, he lost custody of sons William, then 12, Tavita, eight, and five-year-old Fabian.

“I remember Tavita’s look when he was taken away – his eyes welled up,” recalls Dave. “He knew he wouldn’t be seeing me for a while.

“That look he gave me pierced my soul. It made me realise what I was doing to my family, to my kids. It’s a look that will always plague me – a nightmare that lives in my heart forever. I’ll never escape it.”

A dad’s promise: “I broke the cycle so they never have to go through what I went through.”

Famously, Dave used his heartbreak to turn his life around when he reached 210kg. “It started with me walking up One Tree Hill. When I was walking, I wasn’t thinking about how awful things were. I was concentrating on trying to climb a big hill!

“I realised that by exercising my body, I felt better physically, but I was also giving my mind time to process and to rest. Now I have a personal trainer, and I ask him to thrash me and not listen to anything I say.”

Dave’s daily schedule is intense but it works for him.

“There are a lot of days when I can’t handle it,” he admits. “I have to vent, so I train. I don’t train to get a six-pack, I train to keep my mind off things. I have to get rid of that energy, so I train as hard as I can, for hours.

“Before I met Koreen in 2014, I’d train about four times a day,” he continues. “I’d still drive around and consider driving into power poles just so I could make it stop. Training was the only time I didn’t feel like that. But getting my children back, meeting Koreen, having Brook – I have so much now because I broke the cycle.”

Something imperative to Dave is that his boys understand how lucky they are. He shares, “They will never have to look through my eyes. I broke the cycle so they never have to go through what
I went through.”

Meeting Koreen was a game-changer for Dave.

But it has come at a huge cost.

“We can’t help everyone,” he laments. “What we do has limits – there’s a point where there’s no more money, no more food parcels. But it’s a double-edged sword – knowing that people need help fuels me, but it also makes me sad. I have to focus on the people we can help.”

Unsurprisingly, Dave’s compulsion – some would call it an obsession – to give so much of himself to help others is a constant worry for his family. They keep an eye on him, though. His work is a family affair, with Koreen taking the lead on much of the creative work, including merchandising.

At January’s Funfest, a free annual family event which this year supported the BBM charity, the whole family volunteered across the five-day event. Fabian even tried his hand at face-painting! “He’s a teenager, but he didn’t complain once!” laughs Koreen.

Filming for Heavyweight with Dave Letele is about to commence and his work for BBM is at an all-time high, but this year, Dave is determined to help one more person – himself.

“This time, it’s not about losing weight or my health, it’s about giving my family time,” he tells. “I want to dig deeper this year into issues like social and emergency housing, and uncovering the slumlords that are profiteering. It’s a disgrace.

“There’s always a lot to do and I’m not always great at knowing when I need a break, but being in the Mount, with my family, is absolutely my happy place. Being with my family, my mates – that’s what keeps me sane.”

For more info or to help, visit thebbmprogram.com/donate

Helpline information

Need to talk? Free call or text 1737 any time for support from a trained counsellor.
Lifeline – 0800 543 354 (0800 LIFELINE) or free text 4357 (HELP).
Suicide Crisis Helpline – 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO).
Depression Helpline – 0800 111 757 or free text 4202 to talk to a trained counsellor.
Alcohol and Drug Helpline – 0800 787 797 or online chat.
Shine – 0508 744 633 confidential domestic abuse helpline.
Are You OK – 0800 456 450 family violence helpline.
Women’s Refuge Crisis line – 0800 733 843 (0800 REFUGE) (for women living with violence, or in fear, in their relationship or family).

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