Scrubbing Graffiti Off Walls, And Catching Prince Harry’s Attention

Sam Johnson and Munter Von Mendelsohn painting: Photo: Zipporah Lomax

I found myself squatting in front of a graffiti-covered wall in Upper Hutt, New Zealand, alongside a small German boy, an entrepreneur and a street artist; all of us scrubbing tags and other assorted delinquent creations off an alleyway out the back of a service station. “What a Saturday”, I thought, as I had visions of school detention, or what I imagine it would be like to do court-mandated community service.

To an outsider, I was stuck doing a thankless task with a random group of people on my one day off. Yet the purpose of our back alley activities, couldn’t be further away from punitive. Our diverse mix of older community members, kids, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and artists from around the world were enjoying the sunny day, great company and physical work. We freed a laneway of graffiti and prepared a space for a mural to be painted by young people.

We were on a volunteer service project. Why?

Because it was what we could do to help Upper Hutt that day.

Within New Zealand, Upper Hutt is to Wellington what the Tenderloin used to be to San Francisco. People occasionally gasp when you say you live there. It’s not really known for anything in particular; the houses are cheaper, hipster stores are non-existent, and the boy-racer cars scrape across the speed humps on the main drag. There is even a Lion King meme featuring the view to the elephant graveyard, featuring the words, “Simba, that shadowy place is Upper Hutt. You must never go there.”

To an outsider, this place is unknown. Yet, our simple act of service had the amazing ability to unite, teach, explore, disarm, and empower both our sense of belonging to the place, and our empathy towards people and a place we knew nothing about.

I learned the lane we were painting was named after a man called Jack Kheller, who wrote the history of Upper Hutt. A proud citizen, grandfather and community man, who would be delighted today to see a group caring enough to restore the dignity to a space too often overlooked.

Five years ago, I was part of organising a movement that demonstrated the incredible power of community spirit and service, after a major earthquake in Christchurch. The earthquake killed 185 people and destroyed the homes and businesses of thousands more. Some friends and I started an initiative, inviting people to volunteer to help via a Facebook page.

Overnight, this became the Student Volunteer Army, managing to amass 28,000 followers and over 11,000 volunteers who rallied to help clean up the city.

Student Volunteer Army clearing silt from Christchurch homes. Photo: SVA archives

Traditionally, students in New Zealand are a subset of society known for partying, drinking, couch-burning and tipping over the household rubbish bins on the way home from the pub. Yet, when it mattered most, out of nowhere came this massive group of volunteers, who cleaned up all the silt that covered the city from earthquake liquefaction, and shattered the reputation of young people in New Zealand — simply because it was the right thing to do.

These small but significant acts of service helped people who were overcome with destruction and despair. We realised that our service wasn’t in the physical work, but in being there for others; listening, learning, and understanding people who are different from ourselves. I know as well as you do what the “right thing to do” is, and sometimes you just need a little extra motivation to get involved.

SVA on a weekend project, helping the late Isabel in her garden. Photo: SVA archives

At the Volunteer Army, we have been searching for a way to continue this movement, outside of a disaster or crisis situation. In 1994, the American Government designated Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as the first and only federal holiday observed as a national day of service. Every year since, thousands of Americans have marked one of the nation’s most important days through volunteering — under the concept of “a day on, not a day off”.

Inspired by this sort of legacy, we teamed up with the Royal New Zealand Returned Services Association (RSA), to launch Serve For New Zealand. Serve For New Zealand is a campaign to change how New Zealanders learn, remember and serve on public holidays. The campaign encourages people to undertake some form of meaningful neighbourly service on Anzac Day in New Zealand on the 25th of April — the day that commemorates all those who have served and died in all wars, conflicts, and peacekeeping operations.

So far more than 4,000 people, including Government Ministers and Members of Parliament, have embraced the Anzac spirit and pledged at least an hour of their time towards Serve for New Zealand. Just this week Prince Harry came out in support of the campaign — being especially interested in the partnership between the students and veterans!

“This initiative is a way for Kiwis to remember the service of others in the past, and to continue that tradition of generosity and sacrifice in a practical way. I would like to congratulate those who have already pledged their time, and encourage others to do the same.” — HRH Prince Harry
SVA Founder Sam Johnson with HRH Prince Harry at the University of Canterbury in 2015. Photo: Paul Daly

While this year is a pilot concept, we are interested in exploring how the concept could be applied to other days of national significance. We’ve had discussions around important but largely unacknowledged days in our history, such as when New Zealand women made history by becoming the first women in the world to win the right to vote in national elections. Other important historical events have slipped off our calendar — such as Parihaka Day, when 1500 British troops attacked and exiled the Māori leaders of a peaceful resistance movement to land confiscations in 1881.

Serve For New Zealand is about shining a light on our national days of significance, and inviting more people to find meaning in them. We invite you to join us, wherever you are in the world, and together reflect on what a national day of significance means to you. Sign up to pledge your time at

For us, helping out others and giving things a go, it is an integral part of what it means to be a New Zealander.