Project Positive

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Graeme Dingle, New Zealand mountaineer does good

Graeme Dingle is fast becoming one of my role models, and I’ve never met the man. I intend to though. Maybe if I’m fortunate, we may collaborate on a co-venture project helping to connect people to the mountains, who knows. The more I learn about Mr. Dingle, the more I like and respect who he is, what he stands for, and what he’s accomplished in outdoor education.
Here’s an article from the Directions Magazine
By Laura Crooks

Inspiring New Zealand teenagers to reach their potential was a plan born during a trip to the Arctic by adventurer Graeme Dingle and partner Jo-anne
Wilkinson in the early ’90s.

Why did you think New Zealand needed a specific programme to help the country’s youth?
I set  up the Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuits Centre (OPC) in 1972 and I thought that was my  contribution to New Zealand in terms of young people. But it was really just the start, because I learnt so much about youth development through it and I got to thinking about the business of dealing with harder kids than those we met at OPC. I felt that for kids who had low confidence and low self-esteem, a one week experience in the wilderness wasn’t enough – it needed to be a continuum of things that really built on what had been learnt in that first period. I then set out to do the first continuous circumnavigation of the Arctic and in the Arctic you get a lot of very unusual communities – they’re very isolated and they live in such extraordinary circumstances where it’s light half the year, then continuously dark the other half of the year. They have very high rates of suicide, the kids don’t have too much to look forward to, and that started us thinking. But it didn’t really hit home until we got back to New Zealand – that here we lived in paradise and yet we had one of the highest rates of youth suicide, youth incarceration, dropouts from school unplanned teenage pregnancy – the works. The main catalyst was going to see Once Were Warriors – that was the thing that finally made us say: “Let’s do something about this”. So, Jo-anne and I invented Project K. basically. The Project K Trust grew into the Foundation for Youth Development (FYD) with nearly 20,000 young people in programmes each year. The FYD runs programmes for kids aged 5 – 18, and Project K is one of these.

Who is the Project K programme for?
Project K is for kids at risk of things like dropping out of school, not in-risk kids. We’re quite scientific in how we choose a student for Project K – we measure the self-efficacy of every kid in year ten. The kids with the lowest self-efficacy get the opportunity to do the programme. At any one time there are around 400 students in the course nationwide.

How did you know what would help these young people?
We did a whole lot of international research into what seemed to work, and two outstanding things came out: First was the Outward Bound process – essentially three weeks in the  wilderness, which taught big life lessons – self reliance, team work, goal setting, achievement and how to hang in there when things are hurting. The second bit of research essentially said that mentoring works if it is for at least six months and if the mentors are properly screened and properly trained. So, from this, we decided on a year of mentoring and 20 days in the wilderness. But without any process of transferring the life lessons learnt in the bush into the kid’s everyday life there was the danger of saying at the end, “Goodbye and have a good life” as the kid goes back to home, community, school and thinks, “This still sucks. I love the memory of the bush but nothing has changed for me”. So we also created a phase known as the Community Challenge where they learned to transfer that sense of new-found confidence into day-to-day life. We challenge them to set as many goals as they like but they have two goals that are mandatory – one in education and one in health.

What kind of changes do you see in the students?
Almost all the kids respond well to the time in the wilderness and there is often a dramatic change. We have parents say, “They’ve grown a foot taller”. And then I think the last six months of the mentoring is where we see a dramatic change as well.

What have the outcomes been like for the kids who complete the programme?
They’ve been extraordinary – way beyond what we could have hoped for. We have parents who had been tearing their hair out coming to us saying, “What kind of miracle have you performed on our kid?” It can be a huge drain on a family having one kid who is not communicating and who has started to go down potentially bad paths. There was one student at the end-of-year Excellence Awards at Government House who said, “You’re not going to believe this – two years ago I was paralysed with shyness”. And then he just burst into song in this absolutely beautiful voice in front of these very scary, successful people. People started crying.
To find out more about Project K or how to become a mentor visit www.projectk.org.nz

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