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Foundation honouring Dalton’s memory to a T

Tania Dalton's legacy lives on, with the help of some Silver Ferns legends, and a strong dose of her fun and humour. Suzanne McFadden reports.

There’s a grand pool table at the heart of the Tania Dalton Foundation, which doubles as the boardroom table.

Reaching the foundation’s headquarters in Takapuna means navigating your way through a labyrinth of corridors, concealed behind a Pita Pit restaurant.   

At the foundation’s first gala dinner in August, celebrating Tania Dalton’s short-but-full life, guests in ballgowns and black ties will be able to play table tennis or shoot balls through a netball hoop.  

Dalton – the ever-competitive dynamo - would have loved it all.

“It breaks down the stuffiness,” says Duane Dalton, husband of the late Silver Fern shooting star and creator of the charitable foundation in her name. “We’re really trying to keep it real, not pompous. That’s what T would have wanted.”

It’s 16 months since Dalton passed away, following a brain aneurysm, but her legacy is growing.

Twelve promising young sportswomen from throughout the country have been granted the first round of the foundation’s scholarships, and are already achieving their goals.

The latest recipient, Ricshay Lemanu – a Year 13 student at Papatoetoe High School - has just been named in the New Zealand sevens side to play at the Youth Olympics in Argentina. Also in that team is another scholarship winner, Wellington teenager Dhys Feleafaga, who’s one of the first 28 players in rugby history to be contracted to the Black Ferns squad.

Sharne Pupuke-Robati - who's the niece of Dame Valerie and Steven Adams - will play for New Zealand at the FIBA U17 basketball World Cup in Belarus next month. National under-19 Ironwoman Lucy Makaea has made the Junior Black Fins to compete at the world surf lifesaving championships in Adelaide.

The idea behind the scholarship programme is to give financial support and mentoring to “level the playing field” for young sportswomen who have plenty of potential, but have experienced hardship.

They each receive $15,000 over three years to help pursue their goals, and are about to be partnered with a mentor - many of them former athletes who played or worked alongside Dalton.

Former Silver Ferns Anna Stanley, Adine Wilson, Anna Harrison and Belinda Colling - who won the 2003 netball world title with Dalton – are among those who've volunteered as mentors, along with former Black Fern Mere Kingi, Olympian basketballer Jody Cameron and former tennis professional Shelley Bryce. The athletes will be introduced to their mentors next week.

"I'm hugely passionate about the cause, knowing how much sport means to people and the value it can have in terms of life skills," says Stanley, who's now a high school teacher. "It's a passion that I shared with Tania, who was a great mate of mine, so I couldn't think of anything better to be part of."

The mentors, Duane Dalton explains, are “a person who isn’t Mum and Dad", who can be a sounding board to the young women.

“It’s independent advice, someone who knows what it’s like to have been there, and can keep an eye on them too,” he says.

Duane Dalton is managing life without his wife and best friend, who he met when they were both at teacher’s training college. As co-owner of the Pita Pit NZ franchise, he somehow juggles work and the foundation with taking care of their three children, Tayla, Charlie and Matt - which includes ferrying them to their various sports trainings and games. Tayla’s own sporting career is blossoming - she's a team-mate of Pupuke-Robati in the national U17 basketball side bound for the world championships.

“It was so humbling when we got the candidates in. T would have been stoked with them.”

- Duane Dalton

Dalton has made sure his kids are involved in the foundation, so they can see the reach that their mother had, and give back.

He’s been astounded by the support that has poured in, for both the family and the foundation, in Tania’s memory.

“It’s still super shitty,” he says of losing her. “But we’ve been extremely fortunate with all the support we’ve had.

“The buddies of T who have stepped up to help out have been amazing. We get everyone from Rotary clubs to local hairdressers, saying ‘how can we help?’ People who didn’t even know her, putting their hands up.”

People like ice-cream queen Diane Foreman, who has offered free accommodation to the scholarship athletes when they come to Auckland.

And telecommunications entrepreneur Annette Presley, who sponsors Richshay Lemanu. Presley has her own programme, Elicit, to help Year 10 girls realise their dreams, and has offered the Tania Dalton Foundation scholars her Dream Boards sessions – helping them define their dreams and set goals.  

Another old netball team-mate of Dalton, Donna Wilkins, has organised a reunion of the famous Southern Sting side, in which Dalton played a major role. The old Sting will play an exhibition match against the young South Beko-League side in Invercargill next month, with the proceeds going to the Tania Dalton Foundation.

“The generosity blows you away; we feel pretty blessed,” Duane Dalton says. “It’s a testament to who Tania was. She was everyone’s best friend.”

The Tania Dalton Foundation was formed just days after her death; her family and close friends wanting her to be remembered for her passion for sport and young people.

“When we set up we were running and chewing gum,” Duane Dalton says of the speed with which it all came together.

“The first tranche of athletes came from six sporting codes that T or our family had a connection with. We approached all of the sports to help identify the athletes, and they took it seriously.

“It was so humbling when we got the candidates in. T would have been stoked with them.”

Twelve scholarships will be awarded each year until there are 36 young athletes in the programme. They will receive support from the foundation over three years, but Dalton is determined the scholarship funding isn’t simply a cheque handed over – the athletes have to apply for the money

“We need three years with them to have an impact, to put some good framework and pillars in place. And we want them to give back too,” he says.

“They can pay it back through their church, or school group or community – it doesn’t have to be through sport. As long as they’re making a difference.”

To ensure the athletes remain involved with the foundation, there will be an alumni programme, where they can mentor or identify future scholarship students.

Dalton also wants to start after-school and in-school resilience programmes, for both boys and girls.

“You have kids battling with mental health issues left, right and centre – life, school, expectations, and social media challenges,” he says. “Our programmes will be based around core values, and learning through sport. That was a big thing with T.”

Behind the pool table, a Nelson Mandela quote takes up most of one wall: “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair.”

It’s the ethos of the foundation, and the belief that Tania Dalton lived by – that sport can lead change and inspire generations.

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