Thirty years ago rugby league coaching legend Graham Lowe vowed to come back to Northland one day to help a region where he saw so much talent yet so much disadvantage and despair.
Yesterday he fulfilled that promise when he returned for the graduation of 10 young Ngawha Prison inmates who had completed his Lowie Foundation's education and sport programme, a first step towards getting jobs or studying on the outside. It was an emotional experience, Mr Lowe said.
"It warmed my heart like nothing before. I've sat in the coach's box at Wembley with 100,000 people in the stadium [when he coached Wigan] and I was no prouder than I was watching these 10 kids graduate," he said.
Ngawha Prison is the first in the country to trial the 21-week course, which combines numeracy and literacy with the basics of working as a fitness trainer. Graduates of the Lowie Foundation course gain a NorthTec level 2 Certificate in Foundation Studies.
Five of the graduates spoke at yesterday's ceremony, along with Mr Lowe and Sevens star Eric Rush.
Mr Lowe, now 69, said his first taste of Northland was in the 1980s when he was invited to Takahiwai to run some coaching sessions. While here he decided to explore the region.
"Some things really stuck in my mind - the disadvantage and despair some people had, but also the talent. It sounds airy-fairy but when I was driving home I said to myself, 'If I'm ever in a position to help, I will'."
One of yesterday's graduates, Ray (not his real name), said the course was "a door-opener to a new life".
In the year he had remaining he would complete level 3 and be ready to start at university as soon as he got out. His aim was to eventually own his own business. The course had given him the belief he could do it, he said.
Another prisoner Frank, who could be released today, said the course was his ticket to the goals he wanted to achieve and his dream of playing in the NRL.
Prison director David Pattinson said he was "willing to stick his neck out" by allowing the course because it gave young inmates confidence and new skills for the outside world - reducing re-offending and hence the number of victims of crime.
NorthTec strategic education director Khalid Bakshov praised the prison for its innovation and being the first in New Zealand to offer the programme. As well as setting the foundations for further study, using sport as the incentive, it it taught inmates resilience for when things didn't go their way on the outside.
The cost of running the course was small compared to the cost of a lifetime in and out of prison.
Mr Rush said he came along to support the programme and hopefully inspire the inmates.
"A couple of the young fullas I talked to were pretty set on not coming back to prison, so that's a victory," he said.
A pilot course was run in Kaitaia last year. Another 14 inmates have yet to finish the programme. Two more level 2 courses and one level 3 will be offered this year. Scholarships have been set up for those who want to continue studying once released.