Before Ihaia Hartley started the Tauranga Boxing Academy programme he lacked direction.

The 16-year-old was attending Tauranga Boys' College, didn't think much about future plans and didn't really give anything outside of school a go.

His mother, Maree Ellison, had heard about the programme through a friend and, as a single mum, she liked the idea of Ihaia having some positive male role models around him.

But Ihaia didn't want to go.

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With some encouragement from mum, Ihaia went along with the agreement that if he didn't enjoy himself he wouldn't have to go back. That was in April.

Fast forward to today and Ihaia has drive, direction and a plan for his future.

"I'm really grateful," Maree says.

The Tauranga Boxing Academy is not a boxing gym.

It's a values-based programme that teaches young people about respect, while also giving them respect, 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 who contribute to their communities.

The other values include responsibility, compassion, consideration, kindness, duty, obedience, honesty and truthfulness.

The programme is based on Billy Graham's successful boxing programme, which helps disadvantaged youth improve their lives through mentorship and building positive relationships with youth and their families, through boxing.

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.

It's designed for people aged 9 to 18, with participants predominantly being referred by agencies such as the police and iwi after being identified as disadvantaged.

Growing up, Ihaia was more often than not in a female-oriented environment.

Through this programme, he is able to interact with positive male role models who genuinely care about him and want him to succeed.

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

Tauranga Boxing Academy's head coach Henry Fa'afili says Ihaia Hartley (right), shows leadership potential. Photo / George Novak
Tauranga Boxing Academy's head coach Henry Fa'afili says Ihaia Hartley (right), shows leadership potential. Photo / George Novak

The academy has been operating in Tauranga since April, using FitCo gym as a temporary site until their venue at 3 The Strand is ready for use.

They still need to refurbish the site but they hope it will be ready for use for the next year so they can continue helping more youth.

Ihaia has been there since the start and Maree says the programme has been an asset for her son.

"It's good discipline, it's values-based, it's about respect.

"The boys get respect, he feels respected.

"It's not just about learning to box, he loved it and he got a lot out of it."

Those running the programme could also see the benefits Ihaia was gaining through being part of the programme so he was selected for a scholarship to go on a three-week Outward Bound course.

Fa'afili said when Ihaia started he was "a real shy boy" and didn't say much.

It didn't take long before he began showing a genuine interest, asking questions, absorbing all of the values he was being taught and stepped up into a leadership role without even realising it.

He says boys in the programme will be finishing off their trainings and Ihaia will be in the background encouraging them along.

Ihaia was on a September intake of the Outward Bound programme, requiring him and other participants to take responsibility for themselves in the outdoors.

They learned in the mountains, bush and waterways of the South Island and didn't have access to technology.

"Ihaia just blossomed when he got back from the programme," Fa'afili said.

"He's actually having an positive effect on the boys."

Nees says sending Ihaia on the programme was a milestone for not only him, but for them as well.

He says Ihaia had responded really well and his experience is something other kids in the Tauranga Boxing Academy programme can look forward to.

"Going to Outward Bound has helped his leadership skills further," Nees says.

Ihaia Hartley working out with head coach Henry Fa'afili. Photo / George Novak
Ihaia Hartley working out with head coach Henry Fa'afili. Photo / George Novak

Maree is particularly grateful to the academy for giving her son the opportunity to be part of such an experience and really noticed how much Nees, Fa'afili and Howe cared about the kids they worked with when they turned up at the airport to see him off.

Since he got back in October, Ihaia's independence has grown immensely.

He'd get himself up for a run at 5am because that was what they did during his outdoor adventure

"He's learning to be responsible for himself."

Ihaia is focused on his future how, setting goals and looking at what trade he can learn so he has a career to look forward to.

He has started fulltime work, which has meant he has been unable to attend his weekly sessions at Tauranga Boxing Academy temporarily, but aims to be part of the programme again in the new year.

Before being part of the programme he'd ask his mum to take him to school if it was raining or go straight to her when he needed help with something.

Now he tries to solve his own problems first.

"They've given him opportunities that I couldn't," she says.


Ihaia is just one of many boys going through the Tauranga Boxing Academy programme.

When the programme started it was operating once a week with up to 10 young men.

However, in October they increased their sessions to twice a week at the request of those involved, with about 16 young men turning up.

"We don't want to say no to some of these boys," Fa'afili says.

"The boys love it, we're just thankful that we've got the space from FitCo.

He says they have a lot of support from people in the community with mentors and volunteers coming in to do what they can to help.

"Tanerau Latimer comes in often on a Tuesday to see where he can help," he says of the former All Blacks flanker.

One of those volunteers is Lindsay Maclean, Fa'afili's assistant coach.

Fa'afili says he's good with the kids and genuinely wants to make a positive impact in the kids' lives.

"We do have rules, we don't want them getting in trouble.

"At the end of the day we want to get the boys jobs and working in the community, we want them to reach their full potential."

Nees says they are excited about the prospect of helping even more young people towards achieving success in their futures.

"We're being looked after at FitCo, Tim provides two sessions for us free of charge. We couldn't be doing it if it wasn't for that," Nees says.

The Tauranga Boxing Academy has been running out of Tauranga's FitCo gym this year until their own site along The Strand is ready. Photo / George Novak
The Tauranga Boxing Academy has been running out of Tauranga's FitCo gym this year until their own site along The Strand is ready. Photo / George Novak

But they can't increase their numbers until their building is ready for use.

"If we're successful they'll feel successful. Our focus is to get these kids who lack any sort of positive environment where they're growing up and lack of encouragement. That's not the situation in all cases. Some have been in trouble, some have struggled.

"We've got to earn their trust too. A lot of them have probably been let down.

"We say to the kids, this is going to be your gym. We want them to proud of it, respect it."

They want to create a positive environment for young people "so we can put them on a pathway so that they can think positively about the future".

Nees says their real goal is to ensure these young people have a long-term career and there are a lot of businesses taking an interest in what they are doing and wanting to be involved.

But, Nees says, they will only recommend someone who is ready because it will be their own reputations on the line.

They're still a fair way away from that point of their programme but they've come along way since Nees knocked on veteran boxing trainer Billy Graham's door in Wellington in May last year.

Nees said "I hope we're going to be good friends" and told Graham he wanted to adopt the academy's philosophy and replicate its successes in Tauranga.

They're still working on but they're already making their mark.

"All we had at the beginning is the heart to make a difference."

He's aware they won't be successful with every young person who comes through their doors but for those they can help towards a positive direction, is worth everything they put into it.

"We've had 24 kids through, some were older and got jobs, others drop out, there's been a core that's been building the whole club.

He says the feedback from family members of those involved and organisations including police and iwi has been positive and are often told the work they are doing with those in the academy is having a positive impact in their every day lives.

What agencies say about the programme:

Officer in Charge: Youth Services Sergeant Mike Owen, from the Western Bay of Plenty Police:

We've had a great start and as I've previously mentioned I've already witnessed first-hand the immediate impact it has had on the some of the boys.

With regards to the boys police have referred, we've had feedback direct from teachers, parents and social workers alike all advising that the behaviour of particular boys in question has been remarkable since attending the Boxing Academy.

They all commented on the sense of pride and accomplishment these boys showed, the excellent rapport they had built with the trainers and the positive environment they experienced.

I'm honoured that police have this opportunity to be involved with the Tauranga Boxing Academy and am super excited about the anticipated move to the new building. I know the boys are looking forward to it and to have a gym they can call their own and form an identity with is going to be important.

I'm aware there's a waiting list already so the new gym will allow numbers to grow, increasing capacity and enable the academy to have a wider impact on a greater number of youth in our community and this can only mean good things.

Youth justice mentor Jodi Manuel of Ngati Ranginui Iwi:

For myself as a female mentor working with predominantly male offenders it is crucial that they have access to males as positive role-models and mentors as many do not have this influence in their lives.

For Maori especially, the tuakana-teina approach is vital to empowering them and teaching them essential learnings that they will need as they grow.

Not only do they learn discipline and commitment but they also develop their fitness, which in turn balances their mental health.

Having this opportunity available to our young tane at no cost is the only programme I am aware of that does this meaning that it is available to all.

Once the Tauranga Boxing Academy has its own gym it will continue to grow in capacity and be able to offer our rangatahi leadership, nutrition and further training giving many a much safer option than their homes or the streets.

I fully endorse their kaupapa and will continue to support it in any way I can as this is such an immense need not met anywhere else.