23 Jun 2021

Turning the Page: Linda Vagana's reading revolution

From Champions of the Pacific, 6:10 am on 23 June 2021

She was a key player for the Silver Ferns for nearly a decade, and now Linda Vagana wants to turn the key and unlock a love of reading in young Māori and Pasifika.

The Auckland-born defender, who also played for and coached Samoa, has her parents to thank for her drive to give back.

Her mum and dad were not regulars on the sidelines during her netball career – because they were always so busy helping others in need.

Linda Vagana, New Zealand Silver Ferns. 8 July 2000.

Linda Vagana playing for the Silver Ferns in 2000. Photo: PHOTOSPORT

Vagana said they were committed to serving their Pasifika community for as long as she can remember. 

"Mum and Dad were very busy in their community work, the work that they were called to do. They would pop out to the odd game, not many, I just think they didn't come because I didn't really like them watching," she quipped.

"I could play in front of crowds of people, but having my parents there it was just something different, I just put a lot of pressure on myself to play better, but at the end of the day they were kind of more comfortable being at home, busy running church and doing their work."

Linda's mother was a seamstress and her father a teacher, before studying theology and becoming a Minister in North Shore. 

Together, they would help Samoan migrants assimilate to New Zealand society, getting them into work and homes, something that has stuck with their daughter and helped guide her both on and off the netball court. 

"Like a lot of the first generation Pacific and Samoan families that came to New Zealand, they all came to work in the factories, the orchards, the meatworks, so we were brought to help build New Zealand and my life just revolved around mum and dad's work."

Helping young Pasifika get the best start in life also runs in the family.

"They started up a programme that looked at training young adults, giving them qualifications so that they can get into the workplace," Vagana recalled. 

"It was a private training establishment and was mainly for Pasifika on the North Shore and I remember driving vans around crazy picking people up and dropping people off after training...and when I retired, I sort of carried on from some of the work that they were doing."

Former Samoa coach and captain Linda Vagana, running a netball clinic in Samoa for kids under 12.

Former Samoa coach and captain Linda Vagana, running a netball clinic in Samoa for kids under 12. Photo: Netball Samoa

Vagana was appointed a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2003 for services to netball and said watching her parents give back to their community inspired her to do the same.

"I think watching and being a part of what they do became all I knew to do," she said. 

"Okay, great, I was very fortunate to be part of the Silver Ferns, but when I look back at the time I was working for mum and dad and helping with the programme, it was basic life skills, and I kind of stayed on that pathway [of helping young Pacific people]."

Vagana is an Auckland-born Samoan but has a long history with the game in her ancestral home. 

She captained Samoa at the 2003 World Cup in Jamaica where they recorded their best ever finish of sixth place, and coached the national team to eighth place at the 2007 tournament in New Zealand. 

Vagana has helped nurture players on the court, at community, club and international level, but it is in the classroom where she has spent the past 15 years helping to inspire a love of reading in homes across Aotearoa and the Pacific.  

"If you look at all the problems in the world, if every young person is able to read and seize the power of what that can produce, and then pass it on to their children, it would probably solve most of the problems here in New Zealand and around the world," she said. 

"We're failing our young people...why are they attending high school where a high percentage of them in their first year cannot read? That's not right and so we have a responsibility to see how we fix that."

The team at Duffy Books in Homes organizing 6000 children's books to provide to children and families across Aotearoa.

The team at Duffy Books in Homes organizing 6000 children's books to provide to children and families across Aotearoa. Photo: Facebook / Duffy Books in Homes

One in five Kiwi kids leave college unequipped for the workforce, and one in four adults have literacy difficulties in their everyday life, with those from the poorest communities worse off.

Vagana is the General Manager of Duffy Books in Homes – a programme developed and designed to help decile 1-4 schools to get books into kids' homes.

More books in the hands and homes of young people will help them develop a lifelong love of reading, she said.

"Duffy Books in Homes is really about inspiring young people to see the value of books and to see the power of what reading can do...our mantra here is: a child that can't read becomes an adult that can't communicate, and we want to do everything we can to change [those statistics]."

"Maori and Pasifika children are highly representative in those statistics, and like anything, our demographics are always going to be our low-income earners, those who are in low socio-economic areas are always going to be the hardest hit.

"But the hope is to instil that love for reading because it just opens the world to success."

The team at Duffy Books in Homes.

The team at Duffy Books in Homes. Photo: RNZ / Talei Anderson

Since 1994, Duffy Books in Homes have given away more than 13 million books across the motu.

Vagana said it was about supporting schools, teachers and parents, who are doing their best to change the world. 

"When I go into schools or businesses, or any environment where I'm holding all of these books, people's eyes just light up."

"If we want to be in the community of seeing our people thrive, we've got to do it together, and everybody, whether their working in education, government or the corporate world, need to see the value of books and reading for that to happen."