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RNZN Sailor of the Year recognised for giving back

The Royal New Zealand Navy’s Sailor of the Year for 2022 is Leading Youth Development Specialist (LYDS) James Faleofa.

10 November, 2022

He is posted to the tri-service Youth Development Unit (North) at Whenuapai, where he helps motivate young people and boost their self-confidence; teaching teamwork, resilience and life skills.

Announcing the award, Chief of Navy Rear Admiral David Proctor said LYDS Faleofa had been recognised for his passion, professionalism and dedication to duty. He said LYDS Faleofa was a respected sailor who led with humility and respect, setting an example for students, peers and seniors alike.

As well as running programmes such as six-week Limited Service Volunteer courses for unemployed 18-to-24 year olds who are not in study or training, the Youth Development Unit (YDU) supports 29 Services Academies within secondary schools, fostering skills and values to help senior students take positive roles in society.

LYDS Faleofa was once in their shoes; as part of Kelston Boys’ High School’s in-house services academy he was inspired to join the Navy by Warrant Officer Ngahiwi Walker’s stories of life at sea.

Now he volunteers his personal time to the academy, and has opened his family home to students from his former school for physical training sessions, mentoring and advice.

Initially it was the idea of playing sports for the Navy, and the opportunity to travel that appealed to LYDS Faleofa. When he joined up in 2009, he found the academy had given him excellent grounding for service life and fortunately Basic Common Training wasn’t a shock.

“I had done induction camps, we do a lot of team evolutions, and we’re taught the leadership framework, at a level for high school,” he said.

Training as a chef, LYDS Faleofa discovered a passion for cooking and travelled all over the Pacific on deployments. He said he always put his hand up to go to sea.

But as his family started to grow, he worried he wasn’t seeing them enough - prompting a change in trades and his posting to YDU.

“Giving back is something I had always wanted to do. I just didn’t know when I would get to do it. When I saw this I thought, this is me, this is the time. The Navy has given me a lot of tools, and I can put those tools to good use.”

In 2020, LYDS Faleofa extended his efforts through an initiative called Fahi On, opening his own home after work to former and current Kelston Boys’ High School students striving to be the best they can be.

“My wife and I made this little gym. When I’m at the service academy, I talk to boys who have a lot of potential but are getting distracted by silly things. They come to our home, about eight-to-10 boys daily, for PT sessions. These are boys who might be mucking around, who have cousins who do drugs, who are a bit lost and don’t know what to do. Sometimes a boy would message us, asking for help, and saying they want to join the services before something goes wrong. For a lot of them, it’s about building resilience. My wife does a lot as well, telling them what it is like to be a partner with someone who is in the Navy.”

As a direct result of his initiative, three former Kelston Boys’ High School students are currently in Navy Basic Common Training, due to graduate in December.

“We’ve also had one boy just graduate from Army training. He’s out there doing it now. He went to Kelston Boys’, he had potential, he was keen, but it was the crowd he hung around with. Today, he’s never looked back, and I’m so proud.”

Now a father of three children under the age of five, LYDS Faleofa said if you put your mind to it, you could do it.

“The gym comes out of my wife’s and my pockets, but this means more than money to us. It’s about seeing these boys on their way. I can’t wait to see them at the graduation.”