This Christmas, the Herald is profiling 12 charities chosen to get a $12,000 grant from Auckland Airport as part of its 12 Days of Christmas giving programme – now in its twelfth year. The $144,000 comes from generous travellers who donate money in globes throughout the airport.

As the "quiet one" in a large, loud and outgoing family, Christine Russell found it hard to fit in. "I felt really disconnected from my family. I'm different to them - more sensitive and quiet. I didn't understand why they did certain things or how they are."

Relationships in the Mangere Bridge, Auckland, family have been transformed since the 17-year-old took part in the Atawhai youth mental health programme, which has received $12,000 from Auckland Airport's 12 Days of Christmas giving programme.

Founder Kristina Cavit of The Kindness Institute says the Atawhai programme teaches mindfulness and yoga to marginalised young people of mainly Maori and Pasifika backgrounds to help them develop resilience and leadership skills.

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Mindfulness is the ability to be present and live in the moment, says Christine. "So you're not worrying about things that went wrong in the past or things that could go wrong in the future." Placing one hand on her heart and the other on her belly, she connects with her breath and body.

"As soon as you learn mindfulness, it's weird but you just know, deep down, that you need it. That's why you stick with it. I practise mindfulness every day. Sometimes I do it without realising - just taking a moment to notice things around me, like the sound of the birds, certain smells, or the feel of the sun on my skin."

The Atawhai programme involves a week-long camp at Karekare. By the end, the participants have also learnt how to teach mindfulness and yoga to friends and family. Christine went on to teach all of Onehunga High School's year 9 and 10 students. Being alone on stage was a bit scary at first for the shy teen. "But when you're teaching mindfulness, you become calm and the whole room becomes calm. It's a safe vibe so you don't feel the pressure." She was recently awarded the school's Humanitarian Award for her work.

Atawhai programme mentor Christine Russell. Photo / Ollie Dale
Atawhai programme mentor Christine Russell. Photo / Ollie Dale

Christine's family were surprised to see the young leader emerge. She says being able to teach them mindfulness has been empowering. "Knowing I have skills that I can offer my family makes me feel useful. They're actually reminding me when I forget to do the things I preach about, so it's good because now we teach each other," she says.

"Since Atawhai, I feel like they've opened up to me. I'm able to share how I feel when they do or say certain things and the same with them. We've been able to talk more and joke around. Now, the connection that I have with everyone at Atawhai is the connection I have at home," she says.

Auckland Airport's general manager of corporate services, Mary-Liz Tuck, says the $12,000 grant will be used by The Kindness Institute to develop educational resources and train youth mentors so the Atawhai programme can benefit more than 200 young people in the Auckland region next year.

"We're delighted that young people and future mentors will receive new educational resources to help them navigate through their journey as part of the inspirational Atawhai programme," she says.

Yesterday: Ruapotaka Marae

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