A Christchurch-based, kaupapa-Māori alternative education programme plans to offer online courses this year after their programme is fully booked out until 2022.
'Bros for Change' Tīmatanga Hou programme has been evaluated as having an 89 percent success rate since it launched in 2015, helping troubled youth become responsible young men, unlocking their potential and reconnecting them to their cultural identity.
"This is a chance for them to actually just be a young man, have no pressure and have fun and maybe a new experience," says 'Bros for Change' founder, Jaye Pukepuke.
Designing the 20-week programme has been a labour of love for Pukepuke, whose own troubled youth inspired the project.
"Everyone said to me 'you can't write a programme for vulnerable children when you’ve been in prison, so my thing was that I wanted to be successful just to prove them wrong," says Pukepuke.
The latest intake are 9 rangatahi from Kaikoura High School, who went on a week-long orientation in Wainui Valley in Banks Peninsula.
This will be no holiday camp - the boys will have to wake up at 6:30am every day and train every day.
"The idea behind it was that if you’re young, and you’ve got no skills, no qualifications.. usually the type of job you may get requires you to start really early.
"We all sleep in the same place, we eat the same food, we all fart and snore and you can’t help but form a bond and build a relationship.
"This is the start of a 6-month programme, so there’s going to be a lot of things come up and a lot of challenges. We just need to roll with the punches and support each other and make sure we are all sitting here at the end," he adds.
A former up and coming rugby league star - Pukepuke developed this unique programme five years ago with the goal of unlocking the potential in troubled teens.
"I had the opportunity to play rugby league professionally and make heaps of money, but I couldn't cos I went to prison.. so I came here to try and help.
"Like myself, if there’s opportunity that comes up in life, whatever it may be.. that you can then go and do it and not miss out."
As a teenager Pukepuke was tipped to achieve big things on the league field - but at just 16, his demons got the better of him.
"They labelled me when I was young, 'stupid', 'hori', and they said 'you're going to go to jail' and I went to jail and I went, 'you're right'," he says.
Pukepuke ended up serving six years in prison for his part in armed robberies. But despite his detractors who thought he couldn’t work with vulnerable children with his criminal convictions, he was driven to change his life and to help others to do the same.
"I wanted to be successful in that just to prove them wrong.
"Jaye couldn’t do this without his background and what he’s been through. What better tuakana could you ask for?" asks Damien Kamana, who is the latest mentor of the ‘Bros for Change’ team
Kamana also had a tough upbringing, growing up in a home where domestic violence was the norm.
"We had a very dysfunctional family - as long as I can remember my mother was abused. She was exposed to a lot of violence, a lot of drugs, a lot of alcohol.
"Different men in and out of our lives. I had no father figure,” Kamana says.
He found himself treating his wife the same way his mother had been.
“My mother always thought that I’d never do anything like that and I told her well I did. It was pretty hard owning that, and pretty hard telling my mother that as well,” he adds.
But through his work rehabilitating offenders Damien began to understand his own behaviour.
"Essentially I was sitting with men that were perpetrators of family violence and I knew I was exactly the same. So over the last four and a half years I guess I've learnt a lot, a lot about myself.
"I don't want these boys to see the things that I’ve seen, and the things that I know about the justice system."
These experiences are used as teachable moments for the boys.
"We all have a story of some sort, all those stories will come out through the next six months, when appropriate, to keep these boys on track, motivated and going in the right direction," says Pukepuke.
The aim of the course is simple - getting kids outdoors and keeping them out of jail.
Māori under 18 years old now make up a larger proportion of those taken into police custody.
While it might look like pure entertainment, the activities are all designed to improve behaviours, like increasing their self-esteem and confidence.
"Hopefully they can start from a level playing field, rather than having to come out of a hole like we did," Pukepuke says.
The mātauranga Māori elements of the programme are truly life-changing for these young men.
"If we can give these guys their identity and know their whakapapa and where they actually come from and who they actually are, I think that's important. They need to keep that, we should never lose it," says Kamana.
An independent study of the programme by Ihi Research found that culturally-based learning resulted in significant behavioural changes in rangatahi - improving their attendance and engagement at school.
Pukepuke believes a stronger connection to his culture, may have prevented him from going to jail.
Despite being just 15 per cent of the general population, Māori are more than 50 per cent of all prisoners. And that's part of the motivation for ensuring the Bros for Change programme is accessible to kids who need it, free of charge.
"If we charged all the families we would have had no kids. We don’t want to do that, we want to charge the Government. You could give us 10 per cent of what it costs to hold them in prison for a year, with better outcomes," he adds.
After five years of hard slog 'Bros for Change' has been recognised for its remarkable results. This year it was awarded $510,000 from He Poutama Rangatahi, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s youth training and employment pathway fund.
Both Pukepuke and Kamana are excited to see where the boys end up at the end of the course.
"I have visions of them standing there in 20 weeks in a nice shirt and being proud of what they achieved with a full CV. Some will be in fulltime employment and ready equipped with more life skills and experiences, some will build resilience to cope with things that will come up in their life, and they will come up.
"It's never too late, you can do whatever you want and that’s what we’re projecting onto the kids."