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Polyfest 2024: Down Syndrome student shows off Tongan spirit on stage

William Sangster, Te Rito Journalism cadet

A student with Down syndrome will take centre stage at Polyfest for the final time, after participating at the festival for three years.

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air

Tomislav Jurisich, 17, will perform on the Tongan Stage at the Auckland Secondary Schools’ Polyfest, at the Manukau Sports Bowl, tomorrow.

The Marcellin College year 12 student is Croatian and has a love for the Tongan culture.

He has performed with the school’s Tongan group for three years.

“If you want to do something, have a go at it. Don’t be scared to try something new, it’s fun,” the young man said.

Today is World Down Syndrome Day - a day to advocate and raise awareness about the rights, inclusion and well-being of people with the condition.

Tomislav a proud tamasi’i

Tomislav loves that he gets to dance, sing and be with other people - and while there are tricky parts, he trains hard.

Learning the māulūulu with his fellow classmates in the group also brings him happiness.

Marcellin College principal, Maria Prescott, says she feels pure joy seeing Jurisich taking part in the festivities.

Marcellin College offers opportunities for all students to explore their passions and interests so they will grow into the fullness of who they are, she said.

“It’s also about fostering a culture of inclusion in the school, which looks different in different places and spaces.”

‘It’s about fostering a culture of inclusion in the school’

Tongan tutor and teacher, Jeanavieve Pome’e, said it is a feeling of joy when someone wants to share the passion of her culture - especially because Tomislav is such a proud “tamasi’i mate ma’a Tonga” (proud Tongan boy) and which is his favourite Tongan saying.

“It has been such a privilege to watch Tomislav over the years.

He brings the māfana (emotion or warm) spirit every time and he proves to the world that all you need is passion and a great heart.

“I am super proud of him.”

Tomislav was the star of the last Polyfest when he had the opportunity to meet then Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

Pome’e said it is almost as if people know Marcellin when they see Tomislav on the Tongan stage - which is big.

Her main advice to other schools is to give our tamariki or tamaiki the opportunity to learn, embrace and be confident in our cultures.

“We must uphold the dignity and mana of everyone! It might look different in other schools, but working together, no matter the difference.”

Leah Holland, the school’s director of learning, has worked with Tomislav since he started.

She said he respects Tongan culture and works hard to learn the songs and actions for the performances.

“Tomislav is just part of the group. He is treated the same by his peers, the parents and tutors and the expectation is he does what everyone else does.

“He is immersed in a new culture that is strong at Marcellin College. He is respected and shows respect for his peers and the Tongan culture.”

It is Tomislav’s last year performing at the event, as the college only participates in the Polyfest every two years.

The group is set to take to the stage at 8.30am and 1pm tomorrow.

Hero Image: Tomislav Jurisich, who has Down Syndrome, loves the Tongan culture and has been a part of the Marcellin College Tongan group three times. Photo / Alex Burton

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