Forced onto his knees at gunpoint in an alleyway in a carjacking, Terrance Wallace says he feared he was about to die.

"I said to God in that moment — if I survive this, that I know that there is more for me to do in life.

"That if God granted me life, that I would live [mine] to make the biggest difference in the life of young people."

That vow would take Wallace, a youth worker in his home city of Chicago at the time, to New Zealand, where he would establish a unique initiative allowing dozens of Māori and Pasifika students to attend two of this country's most prestigious high schools and follow their dreams.

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His journey and that of young lives he has enriched on both sides of the world is the subject of inspirational documentary In the Zone, about to be released at cinemas around the country.

The title references the InZone programme he founded in 2011, in which he established a kainga (hostel) inside the Auckland Grammar School zone for Māori and Pasifika secondary students who wanted to attend the college but lived out of zone.

The boys would not only have access to the educational opportunities and support offered at Auckland Grammar but also its influential alumni network.

A second kainga was set up in 2015 for girls to be able to attend Epsom Girls Grammar School.

InZone boys and girls have represented their schools in sports, been senior prefects and are forging careers in things like medicine and the arts.

Terrance Wallace, director of InZone Education Foundation, at the hostel in Epsom, Auckland.
Terrance Wallace, director of InZone Education Foundation, at the hostel in Epsom, Auckland.

"Tell them that they're my heroes," Wallace says from Chicago, where he has established InZone Illinois based on his New Zealand model.

"To get the [emails] and the text messages about some of their achievements, it brings me to tears."

Wallace' heritage is African American and Native American (Cherokee) on his mother's side and African American and European on his father's.

He was raised on the west side of Chicago by his single mum Liz, who sent her only child to schools 40km from their home from third grade onwards to give him better opportunities.

Gangs and violence had started to rear their heads in their community.

"It was not uncommon for me to experience hearing the shots of guns," Wallace says. "There was a period of time where there were bullets that hit our house."

Attending the schools outside his area "gave me inspiration and ambition".

"I think the world is so segregated and so divided on so many levels, but the earlier you engage young people in the diversities of life, the greater our future looks for us.

"[And] injustice falls down, I believe, when people can co-exist."

Wallace was a youth worker in his 20s when he was the victim of the carjacking, the scene of which he revisits in In the Zone.

He says three young men, two of them armed, surprised him at a Chicago gas station.

"They made me drive in an alley and made me get on my knees and went in my pockets, took everything that I had out and put the gun in my mouth ... I just prayed."

Wallace says he was pistol-whipped and left in the alley.

Terrance Wallace, from Chicago, set up the InZone programme at Auckland Grammar. Photo / supplied
Terrance Wallace, from Chicago, set up the InZone programme at Auckland Grammar. Photo / supplied

Felt he had been given a second chance at life, he was determined to make the most of it.

In 2010 he was "in prayer" in his office when he decided to come to New Zealand.

"I looked at the globe, saw a little-bitty island ... with a whole lot of water around it.

"From there I began planning. And four weeks later I was there."

When he first landed in Auckland, "I thought it was a paradise".

He was saddened when he saw a news item about Māori and Pasifika being under-represented in educational achievement.

"I thought, 'I can do something to make a difference'."

He joined the United Māori Mission, a Christian organisation and registered charitable trust, which began its life as the Presbyterian Māori Mission founded in the early 1900s.

Touring communities in parts of the country, he would become aware of media reports about differences in how children performed depending on what school zone they were in or their school's decile rating.

While some schools in less privileged communities lacked resources, "it wasn't that [they] were bad schools".

It was more that a number of students were being challenged by circumstances in their communities or personal situations, he says.

Teachers would then have to spend a big percentage of their time dealing with "social service issues".

Identifying Auckland Grammar as a top-performing school, he discovered school zoning restrictions which give preference to students living in a designated geographically defined home zone.

Property in the Grammar zone is highly soughtafter and correspondingly priced.

Wallace's answer was to establish a boarding hostel in the zone and invite Māori and Pasifika boys with a desire to succeed to apply for a chance to move into the in-zone home and attend Auckland Grammar.

He approached then-headmaster John Morris who was "very supportive of the idea".

The mission allowed him to use their property on Lovelock Avenue in Mt Eden and the first students were welcomed in 2011. They later moved to another property owned by Ngāti Whātua on Owens Rd in Epsom.

Students live full-time in the kainga and are given wrap-around support, including access to tutor assistance.

Kainga are a whānau environment, "a place where their dreams can survive", says Wallace, who became the students' legal guardian while he was in New Zealand. "We're a family."

Former InZone student Curt Manukia with InZone founder Terrance Wallace and documentary maker Robyn Paterson. Photo / Dean Purcell
Former InZone student Curt Manukia with InZone founder Terrance Wallace and documentary maker Robyn Paterson. Photo / Dean Purcell

In 2015 a real estate agent approached him after seeing a newspaper story about his desire to start a girls' home, and they obtained a property with a lease-with-an-option-to-buy deal on Owens Rd.

He approached Epsom Girls Grammar School and the home was started.

There were 50 students in the InZone boys kainga and 30 in the girls this year.

About 30 iwi and nine Pacific Island groups have been represented over the initiative's eight years.

Auckland Grammar School headmaster Tim O'Connor says most InZone boys play sport and are active contributors to the wider life of the school.

"Although the InZone boarding house is a separate entity to Auckland Grammar School, we offer support in a variety of roles, including senior staff advisory, student tutor assistance for the evening prep, and use of school facilities outside of school time amongst other elements."

Epsom Girls Grammar School principal Lorraine Pound says InZone students have joined the school community and fitted in well.

"Many are involved in sport and arts and cultural activities, leadership and service. Looking ahead to next year one of the three deputy head prefects is an InZone student."

A passion for building bridges

Director Robyn Paterson approached Wallace after seeing an article in the Herald about him.

Paterson, who moved to New Zealand from Zimbabwe, says she was conscious of divisions and disparity within Auckland when she first arrived.

That has been escalated by the housing crisis, she says.

"That then comes into play with school zones ... it does push people out.

"We are living at a time when there is extraordinary focus on difference and division between communities.

"Terrance Wallace is a man passionate about building bridges."

Footage for the 115-minute documentary was recorded over four years here and in the United States.

On a visit back in Chicago for filming, Wallace became starkly aware of conditions in some of the city's communities. He has established InZone Illinois with a house in a suburban village about 50km from Chicago.

Wallace, who studied te Reo Māori, implements cultural lessons from New Zealand including "teaching (the American students) about their whakapapa ... to build into their identity of who they are.

"I'm hoping that people can watch [the documentary] and decide 'I'm going to live my dream. I'm going to live my life to make the difference for someone else'."

Wallace returned to Chicago to live early last year but will be back for the documentary premiere.

While he found it "devastating" to leave New Zealand and his students, he says one of the key principles of InZone is to give back.

In the Zone, by Vendetta Films, premieres at Hoyts Sylvia Park on December 5.

Where are they now?

Students who went through the InZone programme recall their experiences.

Antonio Ripata, 22

Cook Island heritage

Representative rugby prop Antonio Ripata remembers his introduction to Auckland Grammar School in 2011 vividly.

"Driving up through the main gate and seeing the great hall, I just felt like I belonged.

"All the names on the honours boards and the rich history, The pride just drew me in."

He excelled at the school, playing for the Ist XV from Year 11, captaining the side in Year 13 and a senior prefect in his final year.

In 2014, Ripata, who grew up in Māngere, made the NZ Barbarians Schools side, which he captained the following year.

In 2016, he completed a first year of Bachelor of Commerce studies at Auckland University.

He is working as a lending security officer at ASB's head office in Auckland.

On a development contract with Auckland Rugby, he has put his studies on hold while he concentrates on a professional career in the sport.

This year he made a list of New Zealand provincial rugby's strongest players, with a one-rep front squat of 155kg.

Payton Taplin, 20

Ngāti Kahungunu ki Wairarapa, Te Rarawa

Growing up, Payton Taplin says he had a first taste of independence through a video game, Fable, in which players are in control of their character's destiny.

So keen was he on the game he adopted the name when making music as a 15-year-old Māori artist.

Now, after a five-year hiatus, the singer-songwriter who grew up in Papakura, makes his music under the name Fable NZ — releasing four studio-produced songs this year alone.

Taplin, who has completed his second year of a double major in Māori and Communications at Auckland University, represented the school in softball, touch and rugby, was a member of its kapa haka group and a prefect in his final year.

"The competitiveness of Grammar helped me a lot with my work ethic.

"And from InZone I learnt a lot about being more independent and how to take care of myself."

Curt Manukia, 21

Tongan heritage

At just 21, Curt Manukia has been a teaching assistant at a top British school, travelled extensively through Europe, and completed his second year of a Bachelor of Engineering in civil engineering.

He is making the most of opportunities and connections he says he has been given by InZone and Auckland Grammar.

"You're really taught to work hard," he says. "It's always a healthy competition.

"You don't want to be slacking behind."

In 2014, Manukia, who grew up in Mt Roskill, was Auckland Grammar's premier volleyball MVP. He also played for its 2nd XV rugby side and was a prefect in his final year.

In 2016 he took a gap year and worked as a PE teacher assistant at Crosfields School in Reading, England.

He toured around Europe before enrolling at Auckland University as an engineering student.

Manukia, who has done volunteer work for Amnesty International and World Vision, also gives back by donating time to tutor a new generation of InZone boys.

Nikau Reti-Beazley, 19

Ngāpuhi, Ngāi Te Rangi, Ngāti Hine, Tainui, Te Rarawa

An 11-year-old Nikau Reti-Beazley told a newspaper featuring his Mount Wellington school class that he took inspiration from a motivational line, "anything is possible if I believe in myself".

He carried that belief into Auckland Grammar, playing premier volleyball, touch, and 2nd XV rugby for the school, and was a deputy head prefect in his final year.

Reti-Beazley was head boy of his InZone hostel in 2017.

He has finished his first year of a Bachelor of Health Sciences at Otago University and is weighing up whether to become a GP or a dentist.

In April, Reti-Beazley was part of a group which represented Māori at the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, in New York.

He says he is inspired by a final oath of his tupuna (ancestor), prominent rangatira (chief) and skilled military tactician Te Ruki Kawiti, an ally of Hone Heke, to his people.

Kawiti urged them to look above and beyond the horizons of the sea; to aim far and high in the pursuit of purpose.

"I carry that with me everywhere."

Alan Burling, 23

Tongan heritage

Coming straight to Auckland Grammar School from his family's home at Ha'atafu in Tonga in 2011 was a "culture shock", Alan Burling says.

Being part of InZone was "awesome because all the students that were there were in the same boat".

Burling's mother, a Tongan, and father, an Australian, who live in Ha'atafu, place great value on their children's education.

His elder brother is a qualified doctor and three sisters have degrees in business.

"I'm so thankful I went to Auckland Grammar, I learnt so much [from] the subjects I was able to take [there] in terms of what I'm doing now at university."

Burling graduated with a Bachelor of Biomedical Science from Otago University, and is currently studying for his Masters degree there.

He is researching prostate and triple negative breast cancer at the university's pharmacology department as part of the degree.