• The Listener
  • North & South
  • Noted
  • RNZ

Linda Vagana

Books in Homes devotee.

Former Silver Ferns goalkeeper Linda Vagana is also a Westie. The 35-year-old grew up in Waitakere, and hasn't yet left. After 61 tests with the national netball side, she hung up her bib in 2002, returned to study part-time and took on a job as marketing co-ordinator with the Auckland University of Technology. For the past two years Vagana has been general manager of the Books in Homes charitable trust, where she helps promote reading in 496 low-decile schools throughout the country, and provides books and role models for almost 95,000 children.

Netball was a huge part of your life for 14 years. Do you miss the thrill of the competition? I miss playing. I don't miss the training: getting up early in the morning, getting home late. It was busy, and it got busier as netball got a bigger profile in New Zealand. As the game grew internationally, it meant a lot of international fixtures, so I was away from home and missed out on various family events. In the end, you just have to realise when it's time to get out. Netball didn't pay the bills; it wasn't a sport that would give me a career financially.

Yet you are still very much involved in a leadership capacity. I'm coaching the Samoan netball team. I coached the under-21s last year at the World Youth Cup, and had the national team sort of dumped on me as well [laughs], so that's been a lot to juggle and prepare.

You seem to have ended up in leadership roles throughout your career, on the court and off. Not by choice. Being involved with netball, there was a title that was thrown on you as a role model, so I thought, "Oh shucks, that means I have to be good - all of the flipping time." And as a church minister's daughter you have all sorts of different roles chucked at you as well, because you're seen as the person who should be setting the right example. PKs, that's what we call each other.

Like the chewing-gum? It stands for Preacher's Kids. You have a lot of responsibilities that are placed on you. But you just learn to be reasonable and make the right choices without looking like a nerd; make cool decisions that are going to help young kids see that you have pretty much the same background as them and that the choices you make in life will affect you in the long run.

Is your own upbringing the reason you're so passionate about Books in Homes? We weren't able to afford books, but because Dad was a schoolteacher we were lucky he knew what value they had to offer. The first thing I learnt to read was the Samoan alphabet, then the Samoan Bible. I had no idea what I was reading, but I knew I was reading words. This helped because I went into the first years of school knowing what a book was.

Were there no other books around for you to read? Well, there must have been some very rich guy who was going around all these Pacific Island homes selling encyclopedias, because we had a heap of them, and nearly every family I went to see had the same set. This was the key to me having a real interest in books because they took you outside of your world. I thought, "Wow, I could travel the world and go see this."

Three-quarters of the children in the Books in Homes programme are Maori or Pacific Islanders, which indicates there's still a significant gap. We always seem to be making headlines for all the wrong reasons. You can't necessarily pinpoint where the problem is, but I really believe there is a cycle. It comes down to kids not having that value of education and reading in their lives as young children. I want to be able to change that stereotype or stigma for young Maori and Pasifika children and show that we can be successful, not only in sport but also in various roles that we choose in life.

OECD statistics claim that only 54 percent of adults are able to read well enough to fully participate in society. Do you get discouraged by the figures? They are scary stats, but it was about the same 10 years ago, and New Zealand's population has grown since, so it hasn't got any worse. People will only know as much as what's around them, and the challenge is always to get out of that zone of being too comfortable and really have a go at things. It sounds so clichéd, but I totally believe in it.

Competing with technology must be tough. You can be in the most remote schools and see these kids all taking photos with their mobile phones. You think if they can afford those, then they must be able to afford a few books.

Are kids still into books, though? Your organisation gives them three a year, but wouldn't they prefer a PlayStation game? When the kids receive their books, we take in a role model who talks about their own experiences in relation to reading. But we can't give the books out before the role model speaks, because once they've got their books, the kids don't care who it is standing up there. So I guess that's an indication that kids are still pretty excited about books.