Twenty nine Dannevirke teens have taken big steps on their journey into the adult world after completing an eight-week Cactus programme, culminating in the longest day last Sunday.
"You've done me proud and smashed it and you've even made my eyes sweat," Wayne Churchouse, the driving force behind the programme, said on Sunday as his Cactus students graduated.
Mr Churchouse, a senior constable with Dannevirke Police, took up the challenge of initiating and running the first Cactus (Combined Adolescent Challenge Training Unit and Support), youth programme in Tararua, giving his own time to run the three training sessions, Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 5.50am to 8.30am.
On Sunday came the ultimate challenge, the longest day.
"About 10 weeks ago these students lacked a sense of urgency, they stood apart and dropped their heads and I commented to their parents and caregivers how they lacked self-pride, comradeship and that sense of urgency.
"I said 'give me your boys and girls and in eight weeks I'll give you your young men and women back'."
Last Sunday night Mr Churchouse gave them back, changed forever.
"We've watched them grow, working exceptionally hard to get to this point. Wayne is something special," senior sergeant Nathan Davis of the Tararua Police said.
Cactus pushes students through a physical training programme developed in the armed forces and Mr Churchouse, a sergeant in the territorials, worked with a team of supporters to extend the teens, delighting proud family and friends.
"They have come a long way in such a short time," he said. "They have been pushed outside their comfort zone, they have been exhausted and in pain as we've pushed them through their own personal barriers. Most have been put into leadership roles and given near-impossible tasks."
Mr Churchouse acknowledged it had not been easy for some to get out of bed when it was cold, wet and windy.
"It's hard to get motivated when it's -2C, but they did it. Not only did they do it, but they did it well."
Determined not to miss one session, when Elizabeth Curtis discovered she could not get out of her driveway very early one morning after a storm overnight dropped a tree, she rushed to get her parents and together they chainsawed their way out and she made it on time. The students accepted tough challenges in the dark, cold and wet, including exercises with power poles held above their heads for long periods.
"They didn't give up and they learnt what pain was and how to deal with it," he said. "They pushed through and as they ran with the poles, encouraging each other, I saw one student change from one power pole to another when he saw them struggling. At that point I said nothing. I was so proud of them. I knew then they would make it to graduation.
"But for just making my eyes sweat I gave them a team challenge to swap poles, they executed the task so efficiently."
Cactus student Jackson Patu said the 29 worked side-by-side towards a common goal.
"We each brought our strengths to form one unstoppable team.
Tararua District mayor Roly Ellis is determined to see the Cactus programme continue in the district.
"It has been a howling success, absolutely brilliant," he said. "For Mouse [Wayne Churchouse] to have led the way he has, supported by a great team is exceptional."
And thanks to the exceptional generosity of Dannevirke businesses, this Cactus group was the first in New Zealand to be given lunch as well as breakfast.
-Story and more pics Dannevirke News Saturday.