Auckland police officer Glen Green has resigned from his job to work as a volunteer on the streets helping at-risk kids to have a better life.
It was a chance meeting. When the police constable with a friendly smile walked up to Mary McGorry one day and asked if she knew anyone in the Mt Roskill community who needed help, the retired assistant principal instantly put up her hand.
Much to her surprise, Constable Glen Green, 31, turned up at her home the next day with a small army of young men, police volunteers, landscapers and businessmen to tackle the tangle of weeds and overgrown plants in the front garden of her home. Like something out of a reality TV show, the team transformed her garden, laid new concrete paths and upgraded her bathroom.
But these volunteers weren't doing it for the cameras. Instead, the eclectic mix of former gang members and teenagers, including a group of Somali youths, had been roped together by the persuasive powers of Green, then stationed at the Mt Roskill Community Policing Centre.
"They were all so passionate about what they did," McGorry says. "Everyone was so happy ... however, what stood out was the wonderful relationship between the police and the children."
It was that relationship that Green realised he could build on to get troubled kids off the streets and channel their energy into something worthwhile. Using the Wesley Community Centre as a base, he organised them into basketball teams, played touch rugby, and organised barbecues, dance and music.
Calling his organisation "There's a Better Way", Green set out to convince young people on the street, drawn to drugs, violence and crime, that there were better role models than gangs and those already in trouble.
"It's shocking that when kids in a local primary school were asked their perception of 'what's cool', 180 kids out of 250 said gangs were cool," he says. "Instead of collecting bodies as a police constable, I decided I wanted to put a sign on the top of the cliff saying 'don't take that road'."
Before long, Green realised something had to give. He couldn't hold down a fulltime job in the police force and spend the time he wanted working with the young people who had come to rely on him.
In June, he chucked in his job and hit the streets - using raw energy and his powers of persuasion to drum up support. It wasn't long in coming. Local businessman Bhav Dhillon noticed crime had gone down in his area in the past 18 months and decided to find out who was responsible.
He walked down to the local rugby field to find Green. Dhillon, the managing director of Cemix, asked how he could help.
After learning Green had been funding fishing trips, barbecues and leadership camps out of his own pocket, with some help from his father, Gordon, Dhillon realised the one-man army needed a strategy, sponsorship, help with funding barbecues and mentoring camps and his There's a Better Way website. Together they formed the There's a Better Way Charitable Trust.
Dhillon admits his reasons for helping were partly selfish. "I want my children to be able to walk the streets alone without any fear when they grow up.
"He [Green] is so fired up as he makes inroads in the danger zone, takes risks and breaks the age-old stereotypes."
Since leaving the police, Green, who lives in Titirangi with his partner Michelle, his daughter and two step-children, has been living off savings while he spends long hours at the centre and building up the trust of at-risk youths. Sometimes the difference is as little as fulfilling a dream.
One 19-year-old, in trouble with the law, confessed that he had always wanted to go fishing.
Green's father Gordon, manager of a Thames caravan park, agreed to take him and five mates fishing for the day.
Green later helped the young man get a job and has encouraged him to be a mentor for younger teenagers.
Where once young gang members eyed each other up on the street, now they join nearly 100 young people who play touch rugby and basketball against each other, and get involved in other community events.
One former gang member, Fred Tanuvasa, gave up his patch to work alongside Green as a mentor to local kids. Green's work has come to the notice of Police Minister Judith Collins, Labour leader Phil Goff and other MPs.
He has received hundreds of letters from appreciative families and approaches from communities in Huntly, Wellington and Christchurch who want to replicate the model.
Last month There's a Better Way won the community project category in the Auckland City Community Safety Awards. Green and Dhillon are keen for the model to be replicated in other parts of Auckland. But right now they're searching for sponsorship to support Green's work.
Dhillon: "Once we get them into the ranks and make them realise that there is more to life than unlawful activities and hanging out in a group, we can help them get back into the workforce. I could help by getting them involved as an apprentice or labourers in the construction industry."
Mary McGorry says she feels safer in her home and in the community now. "Earlier we used to hear the police helicopters circle our area all the time but now we seldom hear it. The whole idea of working together to make the community safer for oldies like me is brilliant."