The new government has pledged to double the size of a six-week programme for young jobseekers run by the NZ Defence Force and Ministry of Social Development. It's been dubbed a "boot camp". David Fisher went inside.

They came from all walks of life, but were mostly hobbled in some way.

One by one they stepped off the bus and, for six weeks, kissed goodbye to an indolent life and hello to the military.

Eighty individual sets of feet kicked off jandals and trainers and pulled on army boots to march as one.

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This is the Limited Service Volunteer (LSV) programme, youth development as the New Zealand Defence Force practises it. And it's about to double in size.

The Labour-NZ First coalition deal is aiming to double the number of 17 to 25-year-olds going through the course, from 800 to 1600 a year.

Miracle Paraha, 19, was looking for a job when she reluctantly went to sign on.

"I dread going into Work and Income because I didn't want any financial assistance. I was looking for a job. But I didn't have a very good structure in my life - 12 o'clock wake up, sit around, smoke drugs, that was me."

Miracle Paraha, participant on the Limited Service Volunteer programme. Photo / Michael Craig
Miracle Paraha, participant on the Limited Service Volunteer programme. Photo / Michael Craig

Paraha was told: "Go into the army course. It'll be good for you."

And, four weeks in, it had been, she told the Herald.

The programme runs in Auckland and Christchurch. Paraha, from Manurewa, got off the bus at Motu Moana Scout Camp in Auckland's Green Bay and traded her own clothes for a uniform.

Placed into units, the trainees spend the duration of the course alternating between exercise, team-building, and learning job and life skills.

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Participants on the Limited Service Volunteer programme. Photo / Michael Craig
Participants on the Limited Service Volunteer programme. Photo / Michael Craig

Paraha's in that uniform now, bright-eyed and bouncing in her mud-covered boots and taking a short break in the course's "longest day".

It's a signal event in the six weeks and has the trainees up before dawn, with units competing against each other to complete a series of gruelling tasks.

Teamwork and trust in fellow trainees is a critical part of the exercises.

The mud isn't just on Paraha's boots - she has smears of it like war paint down her cheeks.

"Embrace the mud," she says, with a grin.

"I could have been heading for the s*** personally, but definitely better outcomes coming here.

"I'm always up for a physical challenge. It's a very good opportunity for people that actually want to make a change in their lives and find some new direction, get some structure and discipline. It's mean.

'I have a structure'

"I have a structure. I'm keen to get up in the morning - I actually get up before the alarm. It's had a very positive effect on my life.

"I was definitely not heading down the track I wanted to. Coming here has set my morals and my values back into place. It's much more than you expect it to be."

The programme, run jointly with the Ministry of Social Development, puts participants through 10 courses over the year, currently 80 at a time.

Participants on the Limited Service Volunteer programme. Photo / Michael Craig
Participants on the Limited Service Volunteer programme. Photo / Michael Craig

About 80 per cent of those who begin a course finish it and 80 per cent of those get jobs.
Of those taking part, three-quarters are male and slightly more than half are Maori.

Along with the NZDF instructors, there's a clinical psychologist, police staff and a patron for each intake who acts as a mentor and role model.

On this course, it's Eric Faesenkloet - who has run and owned Bond & Bond and now owns Golf Warehouse.

Golf Warehouse owner Eric Faesenkloet, patron for the recent Limited Service Volunteer group. Photo / Norrie Montgomery
Golf Warehouse owner Eric Faesenkloet, patron for the recent Limited Service Volunteer group. Photo / Norrie Montgomery

Of course he was enthusiastic about being involved but he turned evangelist after disclosure day - when the trainees sit as a group and talk about their backgrounds.

What Faesenkloet heard stays in the secrecy of that group meeting but it ties in with trainees interviewed by the Herald who talked about those in their number struggling with troubled sleep and wrestling with drug withdrawal in the first few weeks.

There were those who, to Faesenkloet's wonder, turned up for the course without toiletries or even a bag. They simply had nothing to bring.

Some of those turning up for the course provide the most basic of human building blocks for NZDF to work with.

'Huge believer'

Previous patrons include National MP Mark Mitchell, who has taken part in four "longest day" challenges and is present when the Herald turns up. Covered in mud, he says: "I'm just a huge believer in the programme."

These "kids", he says, waving an arm at the trainees, come with low self-esteem. "They're put into an environment where they get some of the best leaders and mentors in the country.

National Party MP Mark Mitchell - and former defence minister - is an advocate for the LSV programme. Photo / Dean Purcell
National Party MP Mark Mitchell - and former defence minister - is an advocate for the LSV programme. Photo / Dean Purcell

"If they weren't here, they would be at home playing Xbox, getting into trouble at the mall, or adults (would be) trying to get them into trouble - burglaries or drugs."

Beyond the enthusiasm of trainees - and others involved - the programme struggles with evidence around outcomes.

There's some data - trainees were surveyed from 2013 to 2015, with almost all results showing strong growth in areas such as self-confidence, stress management and thinking for themselves.

Attempts to survey trainees three months after the course failed, with few responding.
NZDF and MSD had better data for the "Military-style Activity Camps" which ran from 2010 until 2015, offering space for up to 40 young offenders.

Participants on the Limited Service Volunteer programme. Photo / Michael Craig
Participants on the Limited Service Volunteer programme. Photo / Michael Craig

They're closer to the 12-month "boot camp" the National Party offered up during the election campaign, targeting young offenders committing serious crime.

The nine-week camps - canned because too few young people were being placed in state care - had detailed reporting and showed the level and seriousness of post-attendance offending had been cut in half.

In the case of 12-15 per cent of those attending, there was no reoffending in the two years after the course.

Drawing links between the programmes is difficult. The Activity Camps were for hardened young offenders compelled under a court order. In contrast, the LSV programme is for job-seekers looking for fresh direction.

But both focus on a fresh start, and at their core is the NZDF discipline, ethos and spirit.

At the LSV, command lines are key, with trainees addressing instructors by rank and bowing to military style commands.

And while there are army boots and military style uniforms, there are no weapons.

Neither is the LSV a recruiting platform, says Youth Development programme leader, Royal NZ Air Force Wing Commander Tua Atkinson.

Wing Commander Tua Atkinson, who head NZDF's Youth Development Programme. Photo / Michael Craig
Wing Commander Tua Atkinson, who head NZDF's Youth Development Programme. Photo / Michael Craig

Atkinson, who acknowledges the lack of hard data around outcomes, says with passion: "You are affecting people's lives for the better and you can't escape that. I honestly can't see anything bad that comes out of the six-week course."

Trainees are drilled in physical fitness, taught first aid to certificate level and schooled on basic life and job seeking skills. They also meet employers and learn how to carry out effective job interviews.

Trainees are not completely cut off from the outside world. While phones are not allowed, they are welcome to write and receive as many letters as they wish.

The programme is to "train not treat", Atkinson says, but there is a keen awareness it is a "risky age group".

There is mental health support for trainees, and options for those suffering drug and alcohol withdrawal.

"We're putting them in that six-week bubble where they can focus on themselves and self-improvement with no outside distractions.

'These people are here to help'

For some, it can be overwhelming. The NZDF trainers, police staff, clinical support - Atkinson says trainees are stunned to think "all these people are here to help, maybe for the first time in their life".

Trainees Brendan Leahy, 22, of Hamilton, and Helen McCartney, 21, of Auckland, were not in that category but sought out the programme to bounce their behaviour back on track.

Leahy had gone on the dole after training and jokes about the benefit of three meals a day. "You only need one meal when you get up at midday."

Limited Service Volunteer trainee Brendan Leahy, 22, of Hamilton. Photo / David Fisher
Limited Service Volunteer trainee Brendan Leahy, 22, of Hamilton. Photo / David Fisher

The outdoor activity is a big change. "The only time I went outdoors was to play Dungeons and Dragons in the weekend."

McCartney found what she was looking for in the instructors.

"They are very focused. They know what they want and know how to get it.

Limited Service Volunteer trainee Helen McCartney, 21, of Auckland. Photo / David Fisher
Limited Service Volunteer trainee Helen McCartney, 21, of Auckland. Photo / David Fisher

"At this point in my life, I don't have that so it is very impressive to me."

As Paraha puts it, trainees learn to value each other even as they learn to value themselves. They're taught the "3CI" - commitment, courage, camaraderie and integrity - and told they are building a lifelong bond with fellow trainees.

"It's heart-warming that I've met these people and they've gone from strangers to brothers and sisters.

"I believe it's a bond that will last."