Real Life

Real life: How a car accident made this man turn to charity

I was given a second chance at life, so now I wanted to make a difference.

Pera Barrett, 34, from Wellington, NZ

I sat bolt upright in bed. I was in hospital surrounded by nurses.
"What happened?" I asked.
A nurse rushed to my side and gently explained that I'd been in a car crash – I'd been unconscious for the past three days.
Over the next couple of days, more details came out. I had suffered serious head trauma, a snapped thigh bone, shattered jaw, punctured lung and a foot "reduced to bone dust".
"You will need to use a wheelchair for four months," my doctor said.
I was only 21 years old and working at a bank.
The last thing I remember was driving along State Highway 1 in Otaki, New Zealand, when my car crossed the centre line and crashed head-on with a van going the opposite direction.
A few days later, the police stopped by.
"The woman in the van you hit passed away.
You'll be charged with taking her life," the policeman said.
I've killed someone? I thought, in shock. I had no idea how the accident had happened as I wasn't drinking or speeding.
Charity work is my way to give back.
Knowing I'd been the cause of someone else's death hit me really hard.
I was in hospital for two more weeks and recovered for another four months at my parents' house.
Tossing and turning, I could barely sleep.
Why her and not me? I thought in anguish.
It was awful.
I relived that moment behind the wheel so many times, trying to work out how I lost control, but I just could never get to the bottom of it.
As the court case loomed closer, I was terrified.
How am I supposed to stand in front of the people who loved the woman who died? I thought.
The whole thing seemed so unfair.
I had worked hard at school and had a good job.
I'd made what I thought were the right choices in life, but in an instant something had gone horribly wrong.
At the trial, the judge decided it was truly an accident and set me free.
"Living with what you've done is punishment enough," he said.
And he wasn't wrong.
That accident will live with me for the rest of my days.
In time, I started making music and writing to process my thoughts.
Me and Danielle with our son and daughter.
I met a woman named Danielle and fell in love.
When I told her what had happened, she was very supportive.
"It wasn't your fault," she reminded me.
I realised what I needed to do to heal was help other people.
A few years later, as part of a workplace charity challenge, I worked with a nearby school to raise money for their music room and sports equipment.
I initiated a few fundraisers, shaving off my dreads to pay for the students' guitars and basketball uniforms.
"Great work, babe," Danielle remarked afterwards.
Doing something good cured some of the hurt that still resided inside me.
In September that year, our daughter Huhana was born.
Then I heard from a friend who was helping deliver Christmas presents to children in need in Auckland.
The campaign was based on an overseas idea where gifts that fit into a shoebox are donated, collated and then handed out.
"I could start a project like this where we live in Wellington," I said to Danielle excitedly.
I broached the subject at the bank where I worked, and my colleagues were all very keen to take part.
Students at Cannon's Creeky School during the 2016 drop-off.
I chose a low-income school in Porirua and then asked everyone taking part to buy a present for one student.
I gave each gift-giver the first name, age and gender of a child from the school.
It was their job to find a gift or gifts to fill a shoebox.
Soon I had enough for 80 kids.
Then I collected and distributed the presents just before Christmas.
People gave toys, rugby balls, dress-up costumes, books and Lego.
Handing the presents out was so rewarding.
A simple gift won't change the lives of kids like these – you need to do more than that.
But if it makes any of these kids think even for some of the day on Christmas Day that the world is bigger than their home, then that's the aim.
Some of the kids said they would put the present under their tree and wait until Christmas Day to open it.
But for others, the excitement got too much and they ripped up the wrapping with glee.
A van full of presents for Arakaura Kingergarten.
I decided to make it an annual thing.
Word spread through social media and local radio stations.
In the months leading up to Christmas, hundreds of volunteers and I collect mountains of wrapped shoeboxes filled with donated gifts and then deliver them to children.
Last year we distributed presents to 4500 kids across 32 schools.
Any surplus gifts are given to the Women's Refuge.
People started calling me Pera Claus, or Maori Santa Claus.
"It's not about me, it's about the kids," I say.It's been 13 years since the car crash that changed my life, and I feel incredibly lucky to have got a second chance.

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