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Real Life

From homeless to head girl

The clever student is right as Rain since deciding to return to school

By Aroha Awarau
When Māngere College head girl Rain Te'i became homeless with her family two years ago, her life was full of uncertainty. But today, the 18-year-old has made a complete turnaround.
This year, she became head prefect of the South Auckland school, saying the experience of being down on her luck motivated her decision to return to school and change her life.
"There's a stigma around families who are put in situations where they have no home and are forced into emergency housing," tells Rain. "But the situation can happen to anyone.
"People don't really talk about being in emergency housing because they feel embarrassed. I'm not embarrassed because the situation pushed me to go to school and pursue my dreams.
"I was aimless before and didn't know what I was doing. Being in that situation made me a better person."
Rain was born in Japan to an American father, who was in the US Navy, and a Māori/Samoan mother from New Zealand. She grew up attending more than 13 schools around the world and when her parents separated, she grew up living between Aotearoa and the US.
Rain with mum Louisa and brothers Tāne (left) and Tūmanako
When the pandemic devastated the world, Rain was living in California with her father during a chaotic period of political and social unrest – experiencing the end of the Trump era, Covid-19 lockdowns and surrounded by violence of the Black Lives Matters protests.
Her mother, Louisa Tipene-Opetaia, was so concerned about the health and safety of her children, she travelled to the US to bring Rain and her two older brothers back to New Zealand.
After spending three years at high school in California, Rain initially found the sudden return unsettling.
"In my mind, I had built this whole future in California," she tells. "I was going to finish school and go to uni. Coming back to NZ felt like I was taking a step back. Because California was in lockdown, I didn't even
get to say goodbye to all of my friends.
"But when I saw how passionate my mum was about bringing us home, because she believed Aotearoa was the safest place for us to be, I put my trust in her."
At 16, when Rain returned, she wasn't enrolled in high school and planned to find a job. Her situation changed when the home her family was renting was being sold, during the first lockdown in March 2020. Rain, her mother, two brothers, grandfather, aunty and a cousin could not find a home to rent and were forced into emergency housing.
"We couldn't find a new home in time, despite having adults with full-time incomes in our family. We could afford a house, but there was a huge shortage, and we couldn't find one big and suitable enough for us."
Taking centre stage at Polyfest. 'I was aimless before. Being in that situation made me a better person'
The whānau was displaced for six weeks before they could find a rental property.
"People tend to look down their nose at people who are homeless and are experiencing hard times," she says. "I know many teens in the same situation and I want them to know that they are not alone.
"Everyone has struggles. I've been through a journey to get where I am today, and being homeless and being in emergency housing is what sparked me to go back to school, because I felt I was just existing and not living."
Rain has only been at Māngere College for a year and is thriving. She's not only the head girl, but she had the distinction of leading both the Māori and Samoan cultural groups at the annual Polyfest event in Auckland. This year, she won the esteemed Taupou category as the best solo dancer on the Samoan stage.
She says her school, with a high percentage of Māori and Pasifika students, allows her to comfortably express and embrace both her cultures.
"I've been to many schools and Māngere College is my favourite. I've been to schools where they assume what I am. When I walk through the gates of Māngere College, they know what I am. There's a sense of belonging that I've never had.
"Balancing both of my cultures has always been a struggle for me. But this school has nurtured me and I don't have to choose. I can embrace both of my cultures and that has contributed to me coming out of my shell."
Rain is a theatre buff who hopes to attend Toi Whakaari drama school in Wellington next year to pursue her love for performance. But for now, she has the important role of finishing off her tenure as head girl, a position that she is proud and honoured to have.
"One of the questions I was asked during my interview was what I would say to someone who thinks I don't deserve to be head girl because I've only been at the school for a year.
"It's not about the duration, but whether you can make an impact and inspire others," she explains. "I feel that I have made a positive contribution."
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