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Tai Brown knows how easy it is for a teenager to fall in with a bad crowd. He's done it himself.

Now 35 with a young family of his own, he works with 15 "at risk" youngsters and their families in Glen Innes and Panmure for the Tamaki Pathways Trust.

Twenty years ago in Huntly, young Tai was "'at risk' myself". His Cook Islands parents both worked, but were heavy drinkers like the characters in Alan Duff's Once Were Warriors.

"I was brought up in that Jake and Beth Heke theme," he says. "There was a lot of promiscuous sex, a lot of young teenagers getting pregnant, a lot of partying and drugs and alcohol. It was all we knew."

Tai left school, got a part-time job and joined his friends on the dole.

"A lot of my friends were involved in gangs as well. I guess it's the law of association - those who you hang around with, you become like.

"As far as the crime side was concerned, I was pretty high in that area - burglaries. I was taken to court and the judge just said that if he ever saw me at court again, he'd throw me inside. That was a wake-up call."

But it took a tragedy to change him. When he was 19, drunk and stoned, he and his best mate fell into a swollen Waikato River. He survived. His mate drowned.

Just before he died, his mate had told him he was going to a Christian camp the next week.

"I was giving him a bit of a hard time about it. I knew it cost $100 - what a waste of money!" Mr Brown says.

But out of respect after his mate died, Mr Brown took the dead youth's place at the camp.

He returned to Huntly a non-smoking, non-drinking, born-again Christian, and spent two years as a labourer and seven as a carpenter for his father-in-law, a builder.

He also became a youth leader in the Destiny Church and in 2004 his pastor spotted a job for a social worker with the Tamaki Pathways Trust.

"I enjoyed building but I enjoyed working with youth and working with families more," he says.

"Instead of building houses, I am building young people's lives."

John Ta'akimoeaka, 16, is an example. Expelled from Tamaki College after getting involved in a fight with a Selwyn College boy, he was referred to the trust early last year.

Mr Brown took him to a gym, a library and the Destiny youth group D Shock, and worked with the Ministry of Education to enrol him at Glendowie College.

"We were working out [at the gym] for two hours, just to get fit," John says. "Since I went back to school, he's been in and out seeing me, keeping me focused, doing what I've been told to do. Just helpful, just talking to me, giving me more confidence."

With help from the Rua and Clarrie Stevens Trust, John spent 10 days on the Spirit of Adventure - his first trip on a sailing ship and his first visit to the Bay of Islands.

He took his turns setting the sails, cleaning the decks and steering the ship day and night.

Back home, he has stopped hanging out with the youth gangs that got him into trouble, plays rugby, and says his goal this year is "to make it through the whole year".

Mr Brown is proud of "a good success rate as far as our clients not reoffending goes". His clients are aged 12 to 16, with almost all too young to start working.

"The success rate, I guess, is due to getting them back in school," he says. "Education, for me, is paramount."

Where the money comes from

New Zealand's 250 Rotary clubs raise and donate about $12 million for good causes every year.

Spokesman Rob Crabtree says clubs get approaches all the time from groups wanting support for local projects and they are considered as they come in. Bigger clubs take on 10 to 15 local projects a year, and four or five overseas, mainly in the Pacific islands.

The Rotary Club of St Johns in Remuera founded the Tamaki Pathways Trust to work with "at-risk" young people in 2000 on the initiative of a club member who is now the principal Family Court judge, Peter Boshier.

Its other recent projects include kilometre markers along Tamaki Drive, a golf tournament to raise money for the Eastern Bays Hospice, low-cost school housing on Taveuni Island in Fiji and taking elderly residents to a rehearsal for Symphony in the Park.