A fatal car crash forced Pera Barrett to make the best of a bad situation.
For the past two years Pera has been the closest thing to a real Santa Claus.
He spent the months leading up to Christmas collecting mountains of wrapped shoeboxes filled with donated gifts and delivering them to children in low decile schools. It’s called the Wellington Shoebox Christmas project and since starting in 2014, Pera and his helpers have given hundreds of presents to young kiwis.
While it’s not saving lives, Pera knows its bringing happiness to hundreds of kids. And cultivating happiness is incredibly important to him: in 2005, Pera was in a life-changing car accident. He was driving along state highway 1 when his car crossed the centre line and crashed, head on, into an oncoming van.
He was in bad shape; serious head trauma, a snapped thigh bone, shattered jaw, punctured lung, and a foot “reduced to bone dust". He spent the next four months living between a wheelchair and hospital bed.
But that wasn’t the worst part.
“A few days after I woke from my coma, a policeman came to the hospital. He stood at the foot of my bed, took his hat off and told me, ‘The woman in the van you hit passed away. You’ll be charged with taking her life.’”
It’s a nightmare situation and one Pera, who was 21 at the time, has spent years getting his head around. He’d killed someone. He still has no idea how it played out.
“I don’t actually know what happened because I don’t remember anything between stopping at the service station for a coffee, and waking up,” he says. “But I do know I crossed the centre line, and as a result the woman in the other car lost her life.”
The stress and guilt ahead of his trial still rests heavy. He remembers the anxiety and guilt of knowing he had to stand in front of the people that loved the woman.
“I remember leading up to the court case, I was mad. I was angry that after making good decisions and choices in life to avoid things like jail – because that wasn’t far from where I grew up; friends and things – to then go, 'Shit, [jail] is something I might have to do anyway because of something I don’t even remember.”
Ultimately, the judge at Pera’s trial decided it was truly an accident with no mitigating factors; he hadn’t been speeding, drinking, or driving dangerously. He wasn’t sentenced to time in jail; instead, the judge said living with what he’d done was punishment enough.
“The thing about accidents is they can still cause pain, even if you can’t figure out what you should have done differently,” says Pera.
The car accident taught Pera lessons about the important of being in charge of your own happiness. He spent a lot of time doing exactly that; making music under his rap name Percieve, writing, spending time with his family, and giving back to those in need.
“I also came to the realisation that there is no 'fair'. Bad shit is just going to happen; to you, to others, it’s just how life is. I developed a lot of resilience from that realisation.”
Pera is now a dad to a bubbly two-year-old. He has begun writing her a series of open letters detailing his accident and, most importantly, the lessons he has learnt.
“I wrote them and thought it would be selfish of me to save them as private letters. I think they’re lessons that are worthwhile other people [learning], no matter what their age.”
Sitting with Pera, he radiates a confidence and joy that makes you marvel at his resilience.
If we sign up enough people, I’m hoping we’ll have between 2,500 and 3,000 kids this year to give presents to.
The Wellington Shoebox Christmas project all started when Pera collaborated with a school in Porirua’s in Cannons Creek as part of a workplace charity challenge. “Going to these school and seeing these kids who all have massive potential but, through no fault of their own, it’s going to be much harder for them to realise that potential,” he says.
“I do have a little bit of a sense of obligation to do things, you know? To add something to someone’s life.”
He initiated a few fundraisers - shaving off his dreads to pay for the students’ guitars and basketball uniforms. Then he upped the ante by starting a Wellington-based Shoebox project that was already running in Auckland.
In his first year, he just approached the people he worked with and found enough people to give a gift to each one of the 80 students. In fact, there more people keen to get involved than there were kids to give gifts to.
The year after, he signed up another school. Again, he found there were more people keen to help than kids at both of the schools. The generosity of those around him was inspiring.
“We ended up giving present to 350 kids last year.”
This year, he wants to increase that by at least 700 percent.
“If we sign up enough people, I’m hoping we’ll have between 2,500 and 3,000 kids this year to give presents to.”
The way it works is simple: after signing up, Pera gives each gift-giver the first name, age and gender of the child from a school. It’s then their job to find a gift to fill a shoebox.
“Every single person who signs up means another kid gets a present on Christmas day.”
He knows there are major planning obstacles with collecting and delivering thousands of personalised presents to students, but Pera’s biggest challenge is the attention he gets.
“I have complexes about people thinking that I’m showboating or that I’m just doing this for publicity. I don’t actually like any of that stuff but people, by default, seem to congratulate me for doing this thing. I cringe every time.”
He knows it’s a price he has to pay if he wants to grow the project so he sucks it up and remembers his real goal, which is to make children smile and think outside the street they grew up on.
“People say to me ‘You’re making such a difference in these kids’ lives.’ I don’t think we are, but I do hope that the kids start to think that there’s more out there than where they grew up. Even if they don’t, it’s still another positive experience that may help them make positive decision later on.”
Cover photo: A thank you drawing from one of the Shoebox Chrismas kids. Supplied.