A former street kid turned scientist and inventor has been capped New Zealander of the Year in the country’s inaugural awards to honour extraordinary and inspiring Kiwis.
The new title recognises a remarkable career for Ray Avery who was born in Britain, abandoned as a baby and ended up living on the streets of London.
The now 62-year-old came to New Zealand in 1972 and these days devotes his life to fighting poverty and ill health in the Third World.
Hobo street kid
Avery, who was capped at a ceremony in Auckland last night (3.02.10) says he spent the first 14 years of his life in orphanages moving around southern England "in a kind of Dickensian labyrinth of bad stuff".
"Then I decided to take my life in my own hands and ran away and lived on the streets of London for about a year before I was picked up in a police raid and invited to go back into the education system," Avery said.
That "invitation" was the making of him, says Avery, as he was taken under the wing of a group of Oxbridge professors who taught him science and how to dress, eat, speak, play bridge and tennis and to dance.
"They gave this kind of hobo kid off the streets a social education and how to communicate."
New Zealand "instant home"
By the age of 26, Ray Avery owned a string of laboratories and drove a vintage MGA car, but hated himself.
"I thought if I had money and I had a position that all of the orphanage debris would wash away and I would be accepted and ... that would make me happy," he said.
So Avery left England and in 1972 ended up in New Zealand, which he says seemed like "instant home".
These days he is a successful businessman, and has produced low-cost inventions that have saved the lives of millions of the world's poorest people.
Third world eye care
Avery developed intraocular eye lenses, which by 2020 will have allowed 30 million people to regain their sight. The lenses are made cheaply in factories he designed in Eritrea and Nepal.
He worked on the invention with renowned ophthalmologist Fred Hollows, who died in 1993.
Avery was ready to call off the project when Hollows died but says he had a kind of catharsis.
"I thought if anybody can do this, I can because I can survive anywhere, I can make anything work. I knew then who I was."
When he finally produced the first lens it sold for NZ$5, compared with the $360 charged elsewhere. He collapsed the price globally, revolutionising Third World eye care. There are now 16 million people using his lens implants.
Avery says the award means he has won the respect of his countrymen. "I have finally found my way home," he said.
Other Kiwis awarded
Other New Zealanders to be honoured in the 2010 awards included Otago businessman Sir Eion Edgar who was named Senior New Zealander of the Year.
Edgar is chairman of sharebrokers Forsyth Barr and a director of Martinborough Vineyard Estates. He was president of the New Zealand Olympic Committee and a keen supporter of sports and the arts.
Last year Edgar backed the 100% Pure New Zealand Winter Games. He has also funded a Dunedin sports centre and is a trustee with the national Arts Foundation.
The Young New Zealander of the Year award went to Aucklander Divya Dhar, a 24-year-old twin who has just qualified as a doctor, is a campaigner for policy change and committed to bringing attention to social injustices and climate change.
Local Hero Award went to Sam Chapman, of Otara in South Auckland. Chapman has spent 40 years helping people who have lost hope and been rejected by mainstream society, focusing on giving them the skills and motivation to turn their lives around.
The Community of the Year title was awarded to Nelson's Victory Village, which includes a health centre and primary school. Judges called the village a "unique example of community-based support achieving positive health, social and educational outcomes".
Background: New Zealander of the Year Awards
The New Zealander of the Year Awards were officially launched in September 2009, and have been developed by Kiwibank to recognise, encourage and reward exceptional New Zealand people who make a contribution to their country.
There are five categories - New Zealander of the Year, Senior New Zealander of the Year, Young New Zealander of the Year, Community of the Year and Local Heroes Awards.
The inaugural awards attracted 500 nominations. Each category was reduced to three finalists by a judging panel comprising representatives of the awards patrons, presenters, sponsors, community leaders and independent experts.
Nominations are taken from a variety of fields including the arts, sport, community service, health, public service, the environment, volunteers, tourism, business, rural, education, entertainment, science, technology, innovation and cultural development.
All New Zealand citizens are eligible to enter the awards.