A group of brave Auckland teenagers hit centre stage over the weekend for their final performance in Manawa Ora: Courage is Contagious, a heart-wrenching showcase that digs deep into the teens' vulnerability as they strive to overcome hardship.

In its fourth consecutive year, the powerful project - put together by creative arts initiative Nga Rangatahi Toa which supports young people excluded from school, encourages the alumni to emotionally explore acceptance and self-confidence as they battle judgment, society pressures and adversity.

The ten teens performed over four nights, taking part in collaborative works including dance, singing, poetry and expression of mind to a live audience at the Aotea Centre's Herald Theatre off the back of a one-to-one five-day workshops series.

Founder and creative director Sarah Longbottom says the Nga Rangatahi Toa vision is for young people to transform their own lives through education and creativity. "During our immersive creative arts mentoring programmes we ask rangatahi (youth) to shed their skin and stand in their vulnerability; we ask them to show courage that is both inspirational and contagious."


With an engagement team that includes a social worker and a counsellor, teens are also paired with an inspiring youth mentor. This year they included artist Owen Dippie, musicians Coco Solid, Tourettes, Team Dynamite's Lucky Lance and Tony Tz, dancer Thomas Rose and visual artists Sara Beazley and Lucie Blaze. Other associated mentors have included Oscar Kightley, Anika Moa, Ladi6 and Boy actor Pana Hema-Taylor.

Speaking to the Herald Manawa Ora director and TEDx Auckland speaker Jess Holly-Bates said the opportunity and impact the programme has speaks for itself. "It's so obvious that that has such an enormous impact on these rangatahi. The change over the course of the week is phenomenal in terms of their guard coming down and what a sense of trust and a sense of empathy, and the way that they actually start to support you, there's a whole flip on the relationship.

Alumni that have been in the programme for one or two years, they come back with a total renewed sense of confidence, they're often into employment within a few months of doing the show, they are able to recognise themselves as artists quite often and make work. Some kids have a renewed sense of self-belief, sometimes for the first times in their lives, they are able to transition into making a life for themselves and that's the key shift."

She said the work done by Nga Rangatahi Toa has the integrity to stand by its values on every level of the organisation "This is a very rare space that Sarah Longbottom has set up, a space that's based on the basic human values of compassion, love, kindness but also it's kind of an upside down world where vulnerability is considered a strength."

She added it's important to remember that not everyone has the same starting point in life and it's important to see the kids from the context of their own stories.

"Instead of pretending that everyone starts from the same baseline, I think that there's definitely some things in terms of flexibility in the curriculum that need to change in the way we work with rangatahi but I think apart from supporting social enterprises like NRT financially, or coming to shows, I think the way that people can help is the way they interact with others. And that's something that's so simple."