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 six 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…
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. 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 walking along a beach thinking about the offer and struggling to accept it. I came to a little river and the thought came to me: ‘This is your River Jordan. This decision will take you out of your wilderness into the promised land’.
So, three 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, 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. On our first class outing, all the kids got stoned. For two months, it was chaos. I was coming home at 3.30 in the afternoon and collapsing into bed.
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 and then quickly closed back down again. For a split moment she trusted me. From then on I started to look for 20-second windows! I started to hear things during those 20-seconds.
“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 believe, ‘Hey, I’m 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 to continue working with the young people. That Trust would ultimately became known as Springboard Community Works. I managed to get some funding and an ex-police officer, Lindsay Pahl, came to help me. Lindsay wanted to make a difference in a young person’s life – not just catch them, get them processed and lock them 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 fire 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, a youth offending programme and our alternative education programme. We’d 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.
We call ourselves Springboard Community Works 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.
I started out from a position of extreme fear. When I was walking along the beach that day I thought I was going to be stabbed or punched or robbed. But what I came to see were wounded children who wanted to be accepted and loved. When they found that acceptance and love, they changed. I’m pleased I got out of farming for that.
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