Turaukawa Bartlett is using his own experiences to help young Maori men avoid gangs and drugs and choose education instead.

"We want to get there before whanau use alcohol and drugs," Mr Bartlett said.

"This kaupapa is about creating strong connections, strong bonds for tane [males]."

As a student counsellor and alcohol and drug support worker based in Thames, he has been talking to secondary school students about his journey. He works with children from the Coromandel through to the Western Bay of Plenty.

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Mr Bartlett was once a high school dropout who became involved with gangs and drugs, he said.

"One of my earliest memories was receiving a letter from my school and they were notifying me that I had not reached level one NCEA.

"It didn't make me feel very nice, so I chose the other option of finding the whanaungatanga [kinship] in a street gang, using drugs, a connection that I didn't have from my school or from my whanau at that time."

He began working as a mental health and addictions support worker only recently, after returning to New Zealand from Perth where he lived for 10 years.

Mr Bartlett and his family returned to Hauraki, where his wife is from, to be closer to whanau and so he could return to education.

The couple wanted more family support for their son, who was diagnosed with autism.

"We went through a time of mourning for about three years," Mr Bartlett said.

"I say it's a time of mourning because it's like having a best friend your whole life, doing everything together and then turning up one day and they don't know who you are."

After beginning a qualification in addiction and mental health support, he started working for Te Korowai Hauora o Hauraki, an iwi-based health and wellness service.

He was awarded the qualification through workplace training organisation Careerforce, which also gave him an award for Maori trainee of the year.

Part of Mr Bartlett's work involved working with students in various secondary schools in the Coromandel and Hauraki area.

One of the schools he worked with regularly was Paeroa College, where he has been working with a group of male Maori students.

Deputy principal Jocelyn Hale said the group was started after the school looked at data suggesting male Maori were less likely to achieve academically than other students.

She said the school was fortunate to have Mr Bartlett's help.

"When he first came he was very excited and very enthusiastic and sometimes that wears off, but with Turaukawa, it's just increased.

"The more we get to know him, the more fortunate we realise we are to have him involved in our school.

"He just adds that extra dimension that none of us bring."

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