Two Kiwis connected through Big Buddy grateful for 'permanent, positive connection' through scheme

Twenty-five years ago, Big Buddy was launched in New Zealand to find father figures for young boys without dads.

Since then, the charity has matched more than 1000 big and little buddies but does have a long waiting list of boys waiting for an adult volunteer. 

Big buddy Shane Brown and little buddy Isaac Afoa have a special bond and friendship.

Isaac was just six years old when he was orphaned. His mum died suddenly, and then, just five weeks later, his dad passed away from aggressive throat cancer.

"What I remember of dad is he was big, he was a bear, he was kind and never yelled. Mum, she was caring," he said.

His grandma, Shirley Afoa, said his parents were his world.

"For any child at that age, they are their world, and especially watching his dad being so sick and having to say goodbye to his dad at a young age, it was a very destroying thing for a young boy," she said.

Shirley took him and his older sisters in, but she was also dealing with the recent sudden death of her husband, who had a heart attack. It was an incredibly tough time.

"He had a lot of fear about where his future's going to go and he came to live with me and then the fear was what if something happened to me, where would he go then?"

Shirley said young Issac, a gentle homeboy, was lost. She felt he needed a strong male role model in his life, but at the time, his uncles and older brothers were dealing with their own grief. 

"I wasn't looking for a father figure for him, I was looking for a friendship for him, outside the family with no ties to, that he could talk boy things with, friendship things with that he couldn't come to grandma with," Shirley said.

Then in came youth mentor and big buddy Shane Brown. For the past five years, they've met up weekly and they chat and text regularly about anything and everything.

"The biggest change I have seen in him is his confidence. He's always been a quiet respectful young man and I have seen him develop into someone who is really sure of himself," Brown said.

Isaac Afoa and Shane Brown, with Shirley Afoa in the background.
Isaac Afoa and Shane Brown, with Shirley Afoa in the background. Photo credit: Newshub.

The pair have become so close that Isaac was even the ring bearer for Brown when he got married last summer.

"I just had to walk down the aisle with the ring and wait for him and his missus to come down," Isaac said.

"To have him there symbolised the fact it wasn't a fleeting sort of phase, this Big Buddy thing. It's real, it's a permanent, positive connection. I felt privileged to have him there," Brown added.

Big Buddy was set up 25 years ago to find father figures for young boys without dads and has since become a successful and thriving charity.

"Looking forward to doing something, like at the end of the week. If you are having a bad week, then you can go see your big buddy like Shane or something. A new friend, if you are struggling with friends, there is someone to talk to and have fun at the end of the week," Isaac said.

Brown said he feels "very lucky" to be in the Big Buddy world.

"I couldn't imagine my life without it now. Like I said, if you have a spare hour or two and just want to make a really positive change in someone's life and feel that positive change yourself, it's the place to be," he said.

Shirley loves seeing her grandson thrive and said her son - Isaac's dad - would be so proud.

"My son would be standing in this room with tears in his eyes, he would be a very proud dad."

Isaac is now 15 and sees both a future in the Army and one day becoming a Big Buddy too.