I grew up in Matamata. My Dad was a farmer, so was my Grandad. My brothers, my cousins and my uncles were farmers. I was born to farm. I left home at 19 to share-milk 130 cows and pursue the family dream. After a solid 10 years, with a wife and young family, I started to sense a call into something more than I had known before, something besides farming.
We sold the cows, despite my Grandfather giving me a pretty strong warning not to do so. I had no idea what I was going to do. There was no logic to it. We let go of a secure way of life, and I was now earning minimum wage building someone else’s fence. We waited for 4 years looking, searching for our next chapter. It would be fair to say that I was feeling pretty disillusioned through this period of time.
Then in 2002 I got a phone call from Wrightsons. They had won a contract to provide an Alternative Education programme for troubled kids who had been kicked out of Mahurangi and Rodney College, north of Auckland. They were looking for someone to come and teach farming. At the interview they asked me questions like, “what will you do if a kid turns up stoned?” and I had no idea. I was from a rural community, and my only social outlet had been church. Even so, they offered me the job. I remember that next week of processing. Did I want this type of job? To tell you the truth these types of kids scared me – but in my heart I knew this was my path for my next season of life so I reluctantly accepted the opportunity to teach youth about farming.
So, 3 weeks later I found myself standing in front of these kids. I had no teaching qualification, no counselling, no background in social work. These kids smelt the fear. In the first week alone, someone set off both fire extinguishers and another kid started a fire. The whole class took off in our van while I was left standing in the classroom and on our first class outing, all the kids got stoned. For 2 months, it was chaos. I was coming home at 3.30 in the afternoon and collapsing into bed emotionally drained.
I thought, ‘What have I done, there’s no way I can influence these kids’, but I hung in there and slowly the young people started to open up and share their stories. I’ll never forget the first: “This is the corner my boyfriend died on. He went underneath a truck on a motorbike. It happened a month ago.” For a few seconds the young girl opened up about what she was carrying emotionally and then quickly closed back down again. For a split moment she trusted me. From then on I started to look for those 20-second windows into the heart of the troubled soul.
“I’m going to go home tonight and my Dad is going to smash me. My Dad smashes me every week.”
“My mission in life is to kill my Dad. He beat up my Mum when I was in the womb and broke both of her legs so I would be aborted.”
“I saw my Dad hanging in a tree. He committed suicide, and it was because of me.”
I started to see these kids, carrying all this heaviness. They weren’t wanting to get stoned because they wanted to be cool. They were acting out of feelings of betrayal, anger or rejection. When they got kicked out of school, it only fuelled their feelings of being no good.
It made me realise how they just wanted to belong, to have friends and to have someone to believe in them. To tell them that they were good at something. Someone needed to stand with these kids – give them a place where they could experience success; a place where they felt they belong and can master something.
I started to infuse these ideas into the farming course and see genuine breakthroughs. Wrightsons pulled out after 18 months, but I knew I wasn’t finished. We formed a Trust under the Vineyard Church in Snells Beach in 2004 to continue working with the young people. That Trust would ultimately become its own trust and be known as Springboard Community Works. I managed to get some funding and an ex-police officer, Lindsay Pahl, came to help me. Lindsay also wanted to make a difference in a young person’s life – not just catch them, get them processed and locked up.
For a time, it was the Gary and Lindsay Show – the ex-farmer and the ex-cop. I would take the kids down to my Dad’s farm. This was my Turangawaewae – “a place of significance” for me. They experienced the farming life, catching deer, hunting possums, docking lambs and gathering around a bonfire under the stars. They thought they were Rambo. It was a great adventure for them. We showed them how one could live differently. That life was not simply about smoking dope and causing havoc.
The Police took notice. They asked us to work with other youth offenders who had not necessarily been kicked out of school. By 2008, we were running three programmes: a mentoring programme targeting 8-12 year olds, a youth offending programme for 13-17 year olds and our alternative education programme for 13-16 year olds. We would help young people get off drugs, help them get their learner’s license, teach them budgeting and life skills, help them get their NCEA qualifications and mentor them into the workplace. A model for wraparound support engaging the wider community was birthed – crime dropped, judges noticed, we even had a visit from the Prime Minister. In 2019, Springboard has 19 staff now servicing 300 youth annually with amazing testimonies of changed lives.
We call ourselves Springboard because it’s about tapping into the strengths which already exist within a community. We call on mentors, on teachers, businessmen and financial people to join us. People who are willing to own this problem. People who share the vision that no kid has gone too far, no kid too hardened to give up on.
What started out from a position of extreme fear is now about how do we serve our young people who have had a hard start to do better – offering them support right through to employment and opportunities that the young people themselves create and the future that they want to be a part of. And for that I am pleased I got out of farming.
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