Many of the youth Northland's Chappy Harrison has worked with are at high risk, have little to no education and feel hopeless.
But he has seen how a trip on waka taua can change their outlook on life.
The 44-year-old Kaitaia man has been awarded with Vodafone World of Difference funding which will go towards waka wananga run by Nga Waka o Te Taitokerau under the guidance of master navigator Hekenukumai Busby.
Mr Harrison has been taking disengaged youth out on the waka as a volunteer for about 15 years and said the $100,000 in funding will help achieve NZQA accreditation and improve the infrastructure of the wananga. Mr Harrison has worked in the community as a social worker for more than 18 years and is currently a social worker for Child Youth and Family in the Tai Tokerau Youth Justice arm.
"I've seen a lot of kids who at a young age are not in school. Some are 14 and 15 and they are illiterate. These are youth who have fallen through the cracks and just gone off the radar.
"It's 2015 and to me, it's really concerning when you have 14 and 15-year-olds who can't read," he said.
Some of the youth he has worked with have committed crimes at the age of 12 and Mr Harrison said many of them have access to drugs and alcohol and are already thinking about gangs. But he has taken these youth on waka wananga and said he's seen change, sometimes immediate.
"I saw what waka can do to these youth. It gives them pride and a sense of belonging. I saw that shift not only in Maori kids but other races as well including Dutch, European, German. It's a platform to provide education that's not school," he said.
"One time a parent told me her son never had an interest in Maori culture and after going out (on a waka) they (later) woke up to him doing the haka in his sleep."
He said the waka wananga are not only about giving youth trips on the water but also about teaching them whakapapa and culture. He said through the wananga they will also teach youth how to swim if they don't know how and they try to personalise courses to suit individual needs.
"If they're interested in sports we'll get them involved in that, if they're academic we might pair them up with a tutor or if they're struggling with academics we might do the same thing," he said.
Mr Harrison said gaining NZQA accreditation would mean youth would be able to earn credits towards achieving NCEA through the waka courses.
"We want them to look at it as a career path with tourism. I think this would be huge for them," he said.