Jake Mills

Showing leadership potential beyond his years

Story by Adrian Coysh

Like many New Zealanders, who do not like to talk themselves up, Jake was shy and approached our interview with some trepidation.  However, ever since I first met Jake at the Be. Leadership graduation in 2013 I was struck by a maturity beyond his years.  

Jake was born and bred in New Plymouth, Taranaki.  “I grew up close to the beach and the sea is a special place for me.  All my family is from the New Plymouth area, and both my grandparents were school principals in rural schools all around Taranaki, from Douglas to Midhurst and through to Central New Plymouth”.

“Schooling started at Wellborn Primary, then Highlands Intermediate, and finally New Plymouth Boys High.  From there I studied at Waikato University, completing a Sports and Leisure degree.  I am a keen sportsman, played sports my whole life, was a front row rugby hooker, cricket etc."

When you were playing rugby as a hooker, how did your Hemiplegia affect your playing game?

“It didn’t at all.  First year of Intermediate School I was one of about 50 people that trialled for rugby - only two made the 1st XV, and I was one of two who made the 2nd XV.  So I’ve always played rugby to a high standard, even at high school, until I ended up fracturing my foot. 

However, every cloud has a silver lining, as Jake explains “at Uni, I started helping out with Wheelchair Rugby where I became a Bench Staff – taking times, doing the stop/start clocks at a regional level. I then got involved in all kinds of sports and recreational activities that were happening in the region – rehab programmes, sports revolutions, the whole scope.   

After I left Uni I started volunteering with the Wheel Blacks – being a support and starting to develop some of my skills in sports and recreation”.

When you were planning your degree was it to become a Phys-Ed Teacher?

“The theory behind my degree was because I knew that I had access needs, and I wanted to make sure I could always control the right side of my body – I’m right-side Hemiplegic (a form of Cerebral Palsy).  They said from birth that I wouldn’t walk, but my parents were always very strong, and determined that I would walk, and that I would achieve as everyone else achieved.  I didn’t grow up realising it affected me or what a disability was. It wasn’t until my 2nd year at University when I rang my Mum and asked “did you know there is a disability sector?”

At what stage did you think “this could be something I could make a career around?

“In my second year of University I took a paper about Disability in Sport which was a lightbulb moment, where I thought I might be able to support others with various access needs.  I got into athletics with ParaFed in the Waikato, and started volunteering for them after meeting a couple of Sports Development Officers at Sport Waikato.

“At the 38th Para Annual Nationals in Hamilton a group from Taranaki came up, and I met the Halberg ParaFed Advisor from New Plymouth and told her I was coming back home to Taranaki.  She asked me to be on the Committee, and I accepted, as ParaFed was dormant in the area.  My Mum also went along to action my name and was nominated for the Chair because of her reputation in the community. 

After a little committee restructure, we started working on the sports side and building the organisation up from there. When the role begun it was voluntary, but we built it to became a full-time paid role in the space of 1 ½ years.” 
How did you find out about the Be.Leadership Programme?

“I applied for Be. Leadership after a chance meeting with Minister for Disability Issues, Tariana Turia in 2013, and went through the programme.  I learnt a lot about myself, built self-confidence, ability to see a vision, and to get things moving.  It put me in touch with a whole lot of fantastic, amazing, connections as well, and really assisted me in my role in New Plymouth.  I really enjoyed helping people with physical disabilities get into sports and recreation.  

“Weeks after the Be. Leadership, I was lucky enough to be invited back as a keynote speaker at the launch of Be.Employed at AUT.  I introduced myself in Maori and ended the speech in Maori.  I had learned Maori language through school and have always had a huge passion for Te Reo Maori and Tikanga Maori.  I’d love to become fluent again at some stage, go back and learn Maori in full immersion.  

Meeting Philip Patston and Lesley Slade, who were running the Be.Leadership programme and everyone else at Be. was inspiring.  I just loved what they were doing, and could absolutely see that it was an organisation I wanted to work for.  The change and the effect that they had on not only their leaders but on all people with disabilities, and what they were doing as a movement, was absolutely amazing.  I can see now how experienced, and passionate this whole team really are, about helping to effect social change. 

How were you employed to drive the Be.Employed Programme?

"The role was advertised and I applied – now here I am, and the rest is history!  My main role here is to work with the students for the internship programme on the coordination side of things.  We source mentors through Be.Accessible’s wide range of networks – and we also approach specific people that we know have had a lot of core experience.

From a young age I was personally mentored.  In my second year of University I met Moana Eruera, Senior Advisor from the Human Rights Commission, and talked for a couple of hours about what it was like to be at University, having a disability.  He was doing some research as part of his HRC role, and afterwards I asked if he would be my employment mentor on my journey to becoming a young professional."

For most of your students, was it their first exposure to a job?

“Yes, disabled people struggle to get holiday or after school jobs.  Part of Be.’s criteria is that students will have less than two years’ work experience.  Every student that has come through the programme has seen more than the value of being able to work – they’ve been able to see this as an opportunity that is extended to them as human beings.”

Are the Corporates really supportive of what you’re doing?

“We’ve had some great feedback from every organisation we’ve worked with, and many want to continue.  They have realised that we’ve got a huge talent pool that hasn’t really been touched, and the skills of some of these students add to a diverse culture and workforce.ACC have also been great they’ve had two interns, and produced a promotional video. 

“Funding for the Internship project was through MSD and we placed 13 in the first year.  The programmes ran from four to sixteen weeks, in a wide range of organisations.

Did you have much difficulty in talking your partner into coming to Auckland?

“No, she was definitely up for it!  I came by myself for the first six months, and it was really great to learn what life in this big city is all about, and also learning work culture as part of a team, because my old role was more autonomous.  It’s been quite a cultural awareness year really!”

It will be interesting to see where Jakes career will take him, but for now he is enjoying working for an organisation which challenges the status quo; growing a talent pool via internship programmes; and working with Be. Leadership alumni to create more awareness of the capability of people with disabilities.

The last word goes to Minnie Baragwaneth, CEO of Be. Accessible: -

 Every so often in life you meet someone who you just know is a very exceptional person and when I met Jake Mills I knew he was just such a  person.  I also knew immediately that I wanted to employ him at Be. Accessible.  His warmth, intelligence, authenticity and desire to learn and grow were  qualities that as an employer I treasure.  I feel extremely lucky to have somone of Jakes calibre on our team and he adds to our ability to affect change every day!