As unfair as it may seem, there are young people who grow up in dysfunctional families, do not receive encouragement at home and struggle through life through no fault of their own. KRISTIN MACFARLANE talks to a group of men who are working towards providing positive experiences and opportunities for youth who fall into these categories so they can grow to become positive members of their communities.


Twelve months ago, Tauranga businessman Craig Nees knocked on veteran boxing trainer Billy Graham's door with a request.

Graham, a respected figure in the sport, had built a reputation for putting troubled youth on the straight and narrow at the Naenae Boxing Academy.

Nees knocked on his door and said "I hope we're going to be good friends" and told him he wanted to do what he was doing, but in Tauranga. Nees, who has a background in both national and international business, wanted to know his secret.

More than that, he envisaged adopting the academy's philosophy and replicating its successes in Tauranga.

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He had become increasingly concerned about the growing socio-economic divide in New Zealand and wanted to do something to help young people who were in hopeless situations and had little prospects of achieving. Graham could tell Nees was determined to make a difference.

Good men, with good people around them, are the key to running the programme successfully, he says.

"Craig Nees was one of those good men," Graham says.

Since then Nees has put together a team of people who are just as invested in helping young men towards a positive life as he and Graham are.

Tauranga Boxing Academy's Henry Fa'afili, Craig Nees and Paora Howe hope to provide opportunities to young men who may be growing up without. Photo/John Borren
Tauranga Boxing Academy's Henry Fa'afili, Craig Nees and Paora Howe hope to provide opportunities to young men who may be growing up without. Photo/John Borren

Nees says the reason he is pushing for the Tauranga Boxing Academy is to make a difference in the lives of young people from less fortunate backgrounds.

Young people from dysfunctional families, who may not receive encouragement at home or are from deprived areas lacking positive experiences and opportunities, are the youths he hopes to help.

He says he became particularly conscious of the gap between those youths and the opportunities enjoyed by his own grandchildren. "I think over the last two to three years I became more and more aware of the disparity."

Youth were the future and to ensure it is a positive one, it is vital those who can help get involved, he says.

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"We have an obligation."

Introducing the Tauranga Boxing Academy:

When young men enter the Tauranga Boxing Academy, they will have to make eye contact with those mentoring them and shake hands.

It's a way to teach them about respect, which is one of the eight values the academy aims to teach disadvantaged youths to help them believe in themselves, achieve their dreams and become young men contributing to their communities.

The Tauranga Boxing Academy programme will be based on Billy Graham's successful boxing programme, which helps disadvantaged youths improve their lives through mentorship and building positive relationships with youth and their families, through boxing.

Graham, a Wellington-based boxing legend, found himself on the wrong side of the tracks as a kid and found a sense of direction through the sport of boxing. He went on to become New Zealand's youngest boxing champ before helping young people with similar backgrounds to him find direction and drive.

"I only see this getting bigger and bigger and being extremely beneficial for our youth, enabling them to harness the goodness inside them."

The programme is designed for people aged nine to 18 and participants will be referred by agencies such as the police and iwi after being identified as disadvantaged youth.

The three primary drivers of the Tauranga programme are businessman Nees, who is the chairman of the Bay of Plenty Youth Trust, former New Zealand Warrior and professional rugby union player Henry Fa'afili, who is the academy's head coach, and long-time educator and coach Paora Howe, who will take on the manager and administrator role at the academy.

The academy has been operating in Tauranga for the past few weeks, using Tauranga's FitCo gym as a temporary site until their venue at 3 The Strand is ready for use.

They need to refurbish the site. The work is expected to begin in about six weeks, and it is likely to be ready for use about eight weeks after that.

An artist's impression of the Tauranga Boxing Academy. Photo/Supplied
An artist's impression of the Tauranga Boxing Academy. Photo/Supplied

Fa'afili says many of those who come through will not have had the opportunity or guidance to reach their potential and believes boxing will give them the life skills to become future leaders.

Already, those involved have noticed positive changes in those taking part.

Fa'afili said those taking part were undisciplined and unfocused during the first session.

They were encouraged to do their best, to respect the gym and the equipment, and take responsibility for their actions.

Their boxing skills and, more importantly, their manners had since improved, Fa'afili said.

The academy's first intake of youths was told they were "going to be our senior boys" and would become leaders of the gym and role models for those who would follow.

They were all excited about being given the opportunity, he says.

Western Bay of Plenty's officer in charge of youth services, Sergeant Mike Owen, says he has already witnessed firsthand the "immediate impact" the academy has had on the some of the boys.

"The sense of pride and accomplishment they showed by pushing through certain barriers was fantastic," Owen says.

They were already displaying respect to the trainers, each other and for physical exercise.
"The personal responsibility they've shown in getting themselves there on time, having all their gear with them etc. has improved dramatically in the first few weeks.

"Some of these boys are well on the way to changing their mindset and becoming positive role models for their peers in time."

Owen has high hopes for the programme and how it will benefit the youngsters' lives, the lives of their families and, ultimately, have a positive impact on the community.

"I only see this getting bigger and bigger and being extremely beneficial for our youth, enabling them to harness the goodness inside them."

Tauranga Boxing Academy head coach Henry Fa'afili at work. Photo/Supplied
Tauranga Boxing Academy head coach Henry Fa'afili at work. Photo/Supplied

The programme is based around the concept of a life-long partnership: Mentors will become invested in the youths, working with them and their families and getting involved with them outside of the gym.

Nees - a man with more than four decades of experience building regional and multi-national businesses and now the managing director of Mount Maunganui-based International Merchants Ltd - says there is no expiry date for the programme and he hopes to be involved with the young men and their families well into the future.

"It goes year after year."

There will also be opportunities for young men to gain work experience and move into employment.

Nees says business owners are keen to provide those opportunities.

"It's a two-way thing. We'll give, and we'll give.

"If they commit and follow our lead then there's no limit to what we will give."

Howe has 50 years of experience working in education and sport and is confident in working with children from all backgrounds. He is currently a facilitator for Treaty of Waitangi and leadership and chairman of the Waka Ama New Zealand Board.

He has seen Graham's gym in action and knows it works.

"I'm not a boxer myself, but I do see it as a really useful vehicle for changing kids lives."

How it will work:

The academy will be managed and funded by the Bay of Plenty Youth Development Trust, which is an independent partner of the Billy Graham Youth Foundation set up by Graham.

Through an agreement with the Tauranga Moana Maori Trust Board, Nees says they have secured a nine-year lease of a building along The Strand, which will undergo a complete refit in about six weeks.

Nees says the refurbishment will include a full kitchen, changing rooms and a kitted-out gym. They want to make sure participants and their families feel comfortable and involved.

Nees believes boxing will "get the young people through the door".

Some students will naturally move into competitive boxing, but the programme is not about teaching kids to fight.

"It's about giving young boys the confidence to walk away from trouble because they know they don't have to prove anything.

"It's discipline and life lessons and self-defence."

Nees says the Bay of Plenty Youth Trust is looking for support and anyone wanting to sponsor the programme can contact him on 029 244 408 or craig@inter.co.nz.

"We need all the help we can get," Nees said.

Tauranga Boxing Academy manager/administrator Paora Howe, Bay of Plenty Youth Development Trust chairman Craig Nees and head coach Henry Fa'afili. Photo/Supplied
Tauranga Boxing Academy manager/administrator Paora Howe, Bay of Plenty Youth Development Trust chairman Craig Nees and head coach Henry Fa'afili. Photo/Supplied

It all started with Billy Graham:

At 8 years old, Billy Graham was taken to a boxing gym by a police officer.

He had been caught climbing into buildings. He was aggressive and no one mixed with him because of it.

The 70-year-old says at that time police couldn't "throw kids in jail" so he was taken to a boxing gym where he met legendary coach Dick Dunn, who changed his life.

"He made me feel special, and that got me," Graham says.

"We've found something that works."

Graham, coming from a large family with parents who spent a lot of time at the pub, says Dunn had a massive impact on his journey, and without him, he says he would not have had the drive or discipline to succeed.

"I became his sixth kid," Graham says.

"I was lucky to have him."

He became New Zealand's youngest boxing champion and was fighting men by the age of 15. He says he never turned pro because his coach was against fighting for money.

He completed a butcher's apprenticeship as a teenager and bought his first shop.

About 12 years ago, he opened the Naenae Boxing Academy in Wellington to help turn the lives of disadvantaged youths around, allowing them to reach adulthood with the motivation, values, skills and knowledge to become responsible adults with direction and goals.

Two years ago, New Zealand Police Commissioner Mike Bush spoke about being a fan of Graham's work, mentoring hundreds of young people over the years towards making good choices in life.

Bush also aligned Graham's work with New Zealand Police's Prevention First national operating model, aiming to prevent crime before it happens to create a safer New Zealand.

Paora Howe, boxing legend Billy Graham Henry Fa'afili. Photo/Scott McLeod
Paora Howe, boxing legend Billy Graham Henry Fa'afili. Photo/Scott McLeod

Graham wants to provide the same opportunity he had as a kid to those who were growing up in similar situations as he did.

There is no alcohol, no bullying, no swearing, no raising of voices at his gym. There is discipline and an understanding that actions have consequences.

"Our job is to teach boys and get them fit and healthy and give them opportunities.
"It's not just about the boxing," he says.

His students have seen many successes over the years. Many have gone onto become committed family men, others have become athletes and head students at their schools.

He's excited that Tauranga's disadvantaged youths will be given the same opportunities.
"We've found something that works."

Tauranga Boxing Academy's eight values:

Respect

- Willingness to treat others with courtesy; to hold in high regard; to honour and care for yourself and others

Responsibility

- Willingness to be answerable; to be trustworthy and accountable for your actions

Compassion

- Willingness to help, empathise with, or show mercy to those who suffer

Consideration

- Willingness to be kind, thoughtful, and consider the interests of others before yourself

Kindness

- Willingness to help, show concern for and be friendly to others

Duty

- Willingness to do what is right or what a person ought to do; obligation

Obedience

- Willingness to respectfully follow instruction and direction from teachers and mentors

Honesty and Truthfulness

- Willingness not to steal, cheat, lie or be unfair