Real Life

Newstalk ZB star Roman healing heartbreak as a big buddy

The talk radio host reveals the sadness that prompted him to transform the life of a young Kiwi

Roman Travers knows only too well what it’s like to grow up fatherless. The Newstalk ZB host is still scarred by “the void” left when his dad walked out, leaving wife Gabrielle to raise Roman and his six siblings, who were all under the age of 11.

“I grew up with a sense of loss,” admits the radio star, who was just eight when his life was turned on its head. “There was also confusion – divorce in those days was not that common. My two older brothers and I were forced to become very worldly at a young age.”

Such was the impact an absent father had on Roman that four decades later, when he had an opportunity to heal similar heartache in another young boy, he jumped at it.

Roman, on his mum’s lap, with two of his brothers, grew up without a dad.

By then, the broadcaster, who fronts top-rating nostalgia show In My Day, had raised children of his own, and having just returned from overseas, decided he wanted to get involved in a charity.

“A friend of mine asked if I’d heard of Big Buddy,” says the 53-year-old, who has also worked in TV during his long media career. “I looked into it and thought, ‘This is it!’ I could see exactly what they were doing – providing mentorship and support to young boys.”

The game-changing initiative, which marks its 25th anniversary this year, recruits “good guys” from the community to spend time with fatherless Kiwi boys aged seven to 14.

“It was exactly what I had needed,” explains Roman, who remembers trying to find his own role models as a youngster in Masterton, in particular with a local councillor who ran youth outdoor adventures. “He didn’t know I was looking to him for that male leadership, but he certainly provided it.”

The Big Buddy mentor process begins with rigorous background checks – something Roman welcomed as “it tells both parties this is kosher – I’m a stranger but I’m not strange”. He was then paired with Aucklander Aidan Morrison, and what has since evolved has been transformative for both of them.

“The rewards go both ways,” explains Roman, who almost seems like a proud father as he shares photos of this “caring”, “funny”, “incredibly creative” youngster.

“It’s not like I look at him as if he is one of my children – but to watch him developing, it’s beautiful.

“Quite early on, he asked me, ‘How long will you be my Big Buddy for?’ I told him as long as he wanted me to be. And he said, ‘Can it be forever?’ I almost wanted to cry.”

While the dad-of-two has seen Aidan mature from a shy child of seven who was scared to even order food at a café, into a 12-year-old who didn’t stop talking when Roman invited him onto his radio show, he admits there have been challenges.

Let’s talk about it! Aidan has grown in confidence since having Roman in his life.

He wryly recalls the “awkward” first meeting, not to mention the figuring out of boundaries.

“Confident as I was, trying to be all cool and telling dad jokes, when it came to things like crossing roads, I didn’t know whether I could hold his hand. But he just instinctively put his hand up to be held.”

Aidan says he loves “doing a bunch of different stuff” with the man he looks on as a close friend, who has inspired the arty youngster to consider a career in media.

“I actually do stuff on the weekends now,” enthuses the Kōwhai Intermediate student. “We go to cafés, sometimes swimming, we went ziplining – it’s different to what I’d do with Mum. It’s good just driving around and talking. He’s funny!”

Aidan’s mum Lianne Morrison, who first heard about Big Buddy while volunteering with a single parent support group, has seen a huge change in her son since he first connected with Roman.

“He has grown in confidence – when he’s with Roman, he totally comes out of himself. Roman really brings out his good qualities,” shares the business development manager, adding she takes comfort knowing Aidan has someone he can talk to about topics he can’t discuss with his mum. “And it isn’t just about what it brings to Aidan – it has reminded Roman how to have a good time… sometimes too much of a good time. He came off Aidan’s scooter a few years back and nearly broke his arm! It’s going to be a relationship that lasts a lifetime.”

Weekends sorted! A coffee date today, ziplining tomorrow.

Roman, who has two daughters, Sophia 26, and Holly, 23, is passionate about encouraging others to get involved with Big Buddy as he has.

“It’s taught me I can be as selfish as I want – ride my bike and read a paper in the café for hours on end – but these kids get to the weekend and there’s no father at home. You can give them an experience they wouldn’t normally have. It’s the very reason you do it.”

To find out more about Big Buddy or to donate to their Father’s Day appeal, head to bigbuddy.org.nz.

Related stories