Following in the footsteps of her mum, Stars midcourt livewire Mila Reuelu-Buchanan is starting a new career in social work, giving back to her Porirua community. And all the while, she's keeping her Silver Ferns dream alive.
As a 10-year-old, Mila Reuelu-Buchanan didn’t think it was out of the ordinary to arrive at school early to serve up food for kids at the breakfast club. Or on weekends, to be painting over graffiti on locals’ fences in the Porirua suburb of Cannons Creek.
For as long as she can remember, she was always helping. And always right beside her mum, Awhina.
“Mum started an initiative called Midnight Express, and they’d have a van driving around Porirua providing milo, coffee, tea to anyone out in the streets. We’d paint fences with graffiti on them, put parcels together for families,” Reuelu-Buchanan says. “I’d always tag along with mum to youth advisory groups, and doing work in the community.
“I was always heavily involved, and I just loved it.”
Even back then she knew she wanted to keep following in her mum’s stride and become a social worker. What she couldn’t have foreseen was that at the same time, she’d become a Silver Fern.
Reuelu-Buchanan, now 24, had her breakthrough year with the Stars in last year’s ANZ Premiership season, and the vibrant and tenacious midcourter earned her first cap in the black dress on the Silver Ferns’ Northern Tour earlier this year.
At the end of this premiership season, she’ll head home to Porirua to start her new job with the police as a social worker in their family harm intervention team.
“A few people have said ‘Why would you want to be a social worker? You don’t get paid much money’,” she says.
“And I tell them ‘Do I look like I’m here for the money? I’m here to make a difference in people’s lives, big or small’. I get so much out of helping my community.
“And it’s so good for me to have a balance between netball and life outside of netball. Netball takes up so much of my life, and I absolutely love it. But at the same time, it will be good to have a bit of a break from it, gain experience in social work and use my strengths elsewhere.”
Reuelu-Buchanan could have employed her strengths on the touch field, too – she loved the game and had a real talent for it, playing in the New Zealand U15 team in Australia. But when she made the Pathway to the Pulse programme and the New Zealand secondary schools netball team, she poured all her focus into one code, knowing a netball career could take her further.
A dynamo at centre for the Stars, she’s continued her stellar form through the 2022 season, earning MVP in her last game, a five-goal victory over the Pulse, as the Stars make their late charge up the leaderboard. They’re on equal points with second-placed Pulse, going into their clash with league leaders, the Mystics, on Sunday.
“We’re glad that rather than starting at our peak and winding down, we’re building with every game now,” Reuelu-Buchanan says. “We’ve just had to get over a mental hump, and now our leaders are stepping up, we’re all stepping up.”
The relationships she’s built in the Stars team since moving north in 2019 have been “unreal”, she says. “I’ve never been in an environment where the culture has been so strong.
“What I love about the Stars is how much we give back to the community. We work alongside Papakura Marae - we did some really rewarding voluntary work last Christmas, sorting out the presents for whānau.
“South Auckland has a very special place in my heart, it reminds me of home and the diversity gives me a sense of comfort as well.”
Helping her community was always the path Reuelu-Buchanan was destined to follow.
It goes right back to a decision her parents, Awhina Buchanan and Danny Reuelu, made to send Mila and her brother, Daniel, to decile one schools in Porirua.
“That’s one of the biggest things I appreciate from my school life, that I got to experience what it was like. You come to appreciate the things that you have, and have gratitude,” says Reuelu-Buchanan, who went to Windley School in Porirua East.
“Being Māori and Pacific, I wanted to work with my people and give back.”
Her mum is Ngāti Porou and Cook Island Māori from Aitutaki, while her dad is Samoan (from the village of Satupa’itea on Savai’i) and Tokelauan (Atafu atoll).
“We were introduced more to our culture, and got involved in the Poly club. I met some amazing people,” Reuelu-Buchanan says.
Awhina Buchanan continues to be an inspirational role model in her daughter’s life. She was a senior advisor to the Children’s Commissioner and now writes policy for the Independent Children’s Monitor, Te Mana Whakamaru Tamariki Motuhake.
“It’s amazing watching her do her work,” Reuelu-Buchanan says. “Gosh, if I can be half the woman that she is I will have achieved something in life.
“It will be interesting to see what I can bring on my own.”
Reuelu-Buchanan completed her degree in social work in March last year, and had a placement with the Porirua police, working in Whāngaia Ngā Pā Harakeke – an initiative where police and local iwi work in partnership to reduce family harm.
“My role was the social worker working alongside police on secondment. First responders will go to a family harm incident and then whānau are referred to us. We refer them on to other social services depending on what they need,” she says.
At the end of the last ANZ Premiership season, Reuelu-Buchanan made the Silver Ferns Development squad and decided to devote more time to her netball.
“But I formed a really good relationship with the people [in Porirua], and my boss said: ‘Mila when you’re ready we’d love to have you back’. So my contract starts when the netball season finishes,” she says. She’ll be working towards her social work registration.
“I’m really looking forward to the challenge. I’ll be the only social worker, but we work collaboratively with other organisations and social workers to gain experience.”
Reuelu-Buchanan believes her culture will be one of her biggest strengths in the role.
“I think being both Māori and Pacific, I can understand on a deeper level. A lot of people are whakamā [embarrassed] when they’re in this situation. I hope I can help break any barriers,” she says.
“Culture has always been one of my biggest values, my identity. Without it, I wouldn’t really know who I am.
“And being in these environments, so many people introduce me to new things about my culture, so I’m also learning from them too. And that’s what I want them to know - they bring so much to the table as well. And that gives them back some of their mana; often they lose part of their mana when they’re in vulnerable situations.”
As she forges relationships with whānau in need of help, Reuelu-Buchanan knows she has plenty to learn.
“My line of work isn’t easy – it can be challenging, draining. I attach easily to people, because I care so much, because I have so much empathy,” she says. “So it’s important for me that I try not to take that home. Hopefully I’ll find strategies on how to do that.
“When I first worked with the police, I went in there ready to save the world, but unfortunately it doesn’t work like that. You’re trying to break cycles that have happened since colonisation.
“So it’s celebrating the small wins, like someone filling out a form on their own. I bring the best practices to my work, but if I am emotionally drained, that’s not going to be helpful for anyone.”
Reuelu-Buchanan hopes the mana comes with being a Silver Fern will help in her work, too.
“I think it’s an advantage that I have a bit of a profile within netball, that I can advocate for my people,” she says.
“I hope I can be a role model. Sport is such a big part of my life, that just keeps me grounded. It keeps a lot of Māori and Pacific grounded and out of trouble. So hopefully I can encourage them to also get involved in sport. It becomes another whānau, another safe space for them.”
Her new employers understand netball is a priority in her life right now, especially with further New Zealand honours calling. Making the Silver Ferns squad for the Birmingham Commonwealth Games in July would mean so much to her.
“It would show me making the Quad Series earlier in the year wasn’t a fluke,” says Reuelu-Buchanan, who made an impressive debut against South Africa in London. “But it would mean even more so for my family. For all they’ve done for me to be able to get here, I’d just love to give back to them and make them so proud.
“That’s my biggest achievement – making my loved ones proud.”
That, she says, and being selected for the Ferns by Dame Noeline Taurua.
“Before then, I didn’t know if she even saw me or was considering me,” she says. “It’s given me so much confidence. My focus now is on performing consistently, week in and week out.”
Playing and training for international netball was a noticeable step up in intensity for Reuelu-Buchanan, even though she’d played for the New Zealand U21s who won the World Youth Cup in Botswana in 2017.
After her first Ferns training, she asked captain and Stars team-mate Gina Crampton if that was the intensity she could expect in a test match.
“And she said ‘No, it’s going to be 10 times harder’,” Reuelu-Buchanan laughs. “And she was right.
“But when I got my opportunity, I was running off adrenalin. I was just having fun. And that’s the mindset I want to be in most of the time in my netball. You know what it’s like when you’re having fun - you play your best.
“It was just amazing being around Noels; the knowledge she brings is second to none.”
Even at just 24, Reuelu-Buchanan reckons she’s a bit of a late bloomer.
“When I think about where I am in my career, I’m not exactly a new player,” she says. “Playing in college, I was so used to getting game time, being the star of the show. But for the last couple of seasons, I’ve just being trotting along.
“So it’s just nice to see a bit of a step up. It’s nice to be recognised. And it’s important I keep playing fearlessly and keep enjoying the ride.”
* In Round 11 of the ANZ Premiership this weekend: Mystics v Tactix, 2pm, and Steel v Pulse, 4pm, on Saturday; Stars v Mystics, 2pm, Steel v Magic, 4pm on Sunday; all live on Sky Sport 2 (Both Mystics games free to air on Prime).