Offering hope to the 'unreachable': The Grace Foundation's rehabilitation programme bringing rival gang members together

Offering hope to the 'unreachable': The Grace Foundation's rehabilitation programme bringing rival gang members together
Photo credit: Newshub

A unique programme offered by Aotearoa's largest bail house is achieving the unthinkable - bringing rival gang members together by offering a chance to put a life of crime behind them.  

Released prisoners often have few options. Many return to the same people and conditions that fed their offending - creating a path straight back to jail. 

But some go to the Grace Foundation, which runs the largest bail house in Aotearoa and has helped hundreds of former offenders transition away from jail. Its approach to rehabilitation offers hope to those often deemed unreachable. 

Grace Foundation supports more than 500 released prisoners in homes and apartments across Tāmaki Makaurau - a large percentage of whom are either gang members or gang-affiliated. 

The co-founder of the Grace Foundation, David Letele Snr, highlights the organisation's unique approach. 

"We may be the only organisation that has a number of different [gang] colours under the one umbrella and there's harmony," he said. 

It offers those from notorious groups like the Mongrel Mob, Black Power, Killer Beez, Head Hunters, Bloods, and Crips a chance to heal their bodies, minds, and spirits. 

In recent months, The Grace Foundation has launched a revitalised unique programme focusing on the foundations of Te Ao Māori, helping career criminals reconnect with their Māoritanga. 

Many of those seeking rehabilitation at the Grace Foundation had traumatic childhoods filled with violence, addiction, and instability - a common thread is their search for aroha and a sense of belonging missing from their earliest years. 

Hone Tukariri, 40, and his wife Hazel are typical. Hazel grew up in poverty in Mangere, south Auckland; her gang-member father was heavily involved in drug dealing.  

Her only goal in life was to "make it out of the gutter, make it out of the ghetto".

Hone's upbringing in Invercargill led him to the Nomads gang, where he sought a sense of belonging and acceptance.  

"I grew up around drinking and heaps of violence," he said. "I used to just watch my mum get beat up all the time."

"I was 14 years old. I was hanging around with Nomads and Nomads was everything to me." 

His ambition: "I just wanted to be part of the baddest, most violent gang." 

Neither Hone nor Hazel had a stable home and a loving father figure. 

"All I wanted in my life was a home, a home I could belong to. I never had a father. It was one thing I always wanted, to this day I still don't know my father," said Hone. 

"I was lacking a dad, not a father, but a dad that gives you cuddles and tells you it's going to be alright," Hazel said. 

Dave Letele Snr, himself a former gang member, acknowledges that many born into gang life have few choices. 

"At age 15 I ended up being a patched member for the Mob and I quickly escalated through the ranks," he said.

"Seventeen, a sergeant of arms, then president at 19 - short-lived because at the age of 22 I got sentenced to a 10-year prison term for armed robbery." 

He founded the Grace Foundation 18 years ago with his late daughter Vicky to provide an alternative path to those seeking redemption, accommodation, and ultimately, a sense of hope.  

Hone and Hazel are on this transformative journey together - shocked into turning away from their previous life of gangs, addiction, domestic violence and crime when they were both jailed at the same time. 

They have 11 children. 

"It was a turning point for us. We had a big wake-up call. We went to jail; we both went to jail, not just him," Hazel reflected. "That was the turning point to where we are now. That's what brought us to Grace." 

Despite their past mistakes, they now share a common goal: to be better parents, providers and role models for their 11 tamariki. 

A new and improved te ao Māori programme at Grace led by Te Reretai Hauiti helps participants to reconnect with their Māori heritage, to provide a sense of belonging and stronger understanding of identity.  

The programme includes a trip to the remote rural community of Panguru in the Far North, which offers gang members a chance to connect with their roots and experience a marae stay. 

"Grace Foundation is breaking ground and taking tāne and wahine on a haerenga [trip]. And it's reconnecting them back to the whenua to iwi to hapu to marae throughout Aotearoa. That's part of the healing journey," Hauiti said. 

Inspired by the programme, a number of those on the course put their hands up to receive traditional Māori tattoos: mataora (facial tattoo for men), moko kauae (chin and lip tattoo for women) and puhoro (thigh and buttock tattoo for men). 

Grace Foundation CEO Ula Letele described the kaupapa as mana-enhancing.

"The majority of our whānau are Māori. This will help our whānau find themselves, and recover themselves, and more importantly it's about restoring their mana to a place of pride." 

Some members even contemplate leaving their gangs behind, as they find their new way of life more fulfilling. 

The Tukariri whānau hope to break the cycle. Hazel and Hone's eldest daughter, Fade, recently graduated with a law degree. 

"Being the oldest I saw it as if my parents weren't going to be the ones to hold my whānau together then I had to be," Fade said. 

She recognizes the importance of her parents' journey in her own personal growth. 

"Even though my parents gave us a rough upbringing I wouldn't change it because it made me have the morals I have today and see the world the way that I do and value the little things in life." 

Her whanau is just one example of those who have taken part in the transformative journey, guided by Māori values and culture, offered by the Grace Foundation. 

Story producer: Joanne Mitchell. 

Made with the help of Te Mangai Pāho and New Zealand on Air.