18 Sep 2019

Graeme Dingle & Jo-Anne Wilkinson: decades with at risk youth

From Nine To Noon, 10:09 am on 18 September 2019

Mental health intervention in New Zealand tends to come too late, an OECD report from last year says.

But when acclaimed New Zealander Sir Graeme Dingle and Jo-Anne Wilkinson learned of the shocking negative youth statistics in our country, they decided to dedicate decades of their lives to help as many as 270,000 at-risk young people.

Through the Graeme Dingle Foundation, they provide programmes like Project K with a focus on the mental health and self-esteem for those between the ages of five and 18.

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Photo: (C) Jane Ussher

Strong foundations

Sir Graeme was a top mountaineer and explorer, notching up more than 200 mountaineering and adventuring firsts here and overseas. His wife and partner in work, Jo-Anne, a lawyer by profession, shares his love of the outdoors and adventure.

In 1995, they were able to officially set up the Project K Trust, designed to support children who felt they had little or no control over the lives and lacked self-esteem or confidence.

Sir Graeme told RNZ Nine to Noon's Kathryn Ryan the initiative started with a gathering of New Zealanders at Maungakiekie, One Tree Hill, about 25 years ago.

They included Sir Edmund Hilary, Sir Paul Reeves, Dame Fran Wilde, Wayne Walden, Arthur Lydiard, along with influential business people from across the country.

“The extraordinary thing about this gathering was that these iconic people came to listen to what we had to say.

“And one of the things we said was we can’t live with the terrible negative youth statistics we have in this country, but if this is going to change it’s going to take your leadership, and many of those people became the trustees of the organisation.”

That initial base of people was incredibly helpful and instrumental in building the right team and the evolution of the organisation today to where it’s at, Wilkinson says, with about 270,000 children coming out of all their programmes across its 24 years.

After announcing their commitment to build an organisation to combat the negative youth statistics, the couple began to consult with communities by kayaking and tramping 1200km from Nelson to Auckland and there was resounding approval for their proposal from the communities, she says.

The couple says they know that some of the children wouldn’t be here today or might’ve ended up on the wrong paths if it wasn’t for the invention from the programmes.

How it works

The pair says New Zealand's appalling youth suicide rates can be addressed if adequately trained mentors step in early and teach young people how to build self-belief, confidence and positive relationships.

“So the age of 14 is pretty pivotal it’s also a year at school where it’s a bit of a downtime year … and so we decided that that’s where we could make a difference,” Wilkinson says.

“With Graeme’s knowledge of the outdoors and knowing what that could do for young people through the outdoor pursuits centre, we knew that three weeks in the wilderness, so to speak, was the pivot point for kids deciding that actually they were able to do way more than they thought they could.

“We also knew that mentoring was a big factor in having that outside-the-family trained adult with an empathetic ear to walk alongside a young person.”

At the heart of this set-up is also efficacy, Sir Graeme says. During the process of offering the programme, they initially measured self-esteem and then developed a more holistic approach to measure self-efficacy.

“And once we’ve done that, the survey, we offer the programme to the kids with the lowest self-efficacy and that’s of course their ability to change their circumstance,” he says.

“So if you were to draw a profile of these kids ... they had very low self confidence, they often don’t see any point in being at school, they don’t particularly like themselves, and they don’t see much hope in their future and at the end of the process they almost all turn 180 degrees and have a sense of direction and hope in their future.”

Programmes that start from the age of five allow for early intervention and a chance for children to develop a can-do attitude. It’s also followed into high school with the Stars programme, which helps kids to stay connected and feel part of the community.

“So what we’re doing with those en masse programmes is trying to hit a bigger market and stop kids from going into that ... [low-efficacy] profile, with Project K we’re targeting the kids that need that extra support at age 14,” Wilkinson says.

Decades on, still thriving

Key to the success of the scheme is not just being able to sustain it across the span of 24 years, but also keeping it relevant. Many things have changed for children growing up in today’s world compared to 1995, with ever-increasing bullying and prevalence of social media presenting new challenges, Wilkinson says.

“I think the social media impact on kids is pretty significant and the bullying that occurs through it, so the lack of face-to-face friendships and many more ‘friends’ being liked on social media.”

They’ve also taken part in a social media research project with Nielsen that’s expected to be published soon, showing the impact of these platforms on youth between ages 13 and 24.

Sir Graeme says kids have their phones taken away during the wilderness programmes.

“Initially they think that’s the end of the world but they soon realise that actually interaction with the other kids is much, much more important.”

Sir Graeme says many schools struggle to deal with bullying, and their programmes have been proven to wipe out that culture from some rough places – even if it’s for a short period.

Protecting our children

Part of enabling at-risk youth to overcome personal challenges is to let them explore new opportunities and go outside their comfort zones, Wilkinson says.

Parents who let their children join the Project K programme – where there’s no communication except via letters – are incredibly brave, she says.

“It’s that whole [thing of] letting your children develop at a rate that is age-stage correct.

“So you see a seven-year-old starting to take some decisions about what they do in getting ready for school and so on versus a seven-year-old who goes and sits in the car and waits for everything to be made ready for them.

“It’s [about] allowing children to flourish and take some risks and not cosset them.”

The inspiration behind it

Having founded the Outdoor Pursuit Centre of New Zealand (OPC) in 1972 – now the Hillary Outdoors Education centres - Sir Graeme has returned as the organisation’s patron.

It was then in the ‘70s when Sir Graeme had a harsh moment of truth laid down on him by a close friend and fellow mountaineer, which ultimately inspired his ventures and current pathway into helping young people.

“This person, Jill Tremain, was a very special person and during our traverse of the Southern Alps in the winter of 1971, on the 25th day or thereabouts, she suddenly said to me ‘Graeme, you know life is a cup to be filled, not to be drained,’ and I looked at her and probably said some rude words about understanding.

“And she said ‘you think your cup is quite full, but actually it’s quite empty and you’re a selfish person, and boring, because you can only think of climbing mountains by their hardest way’ and essentially she said ‘you won’t fill your cup ‘til you do things that are good for other people’.”

He says it took him two weeks to let that sink in but as a result he ended up borrowing money to set up the OPC.

“That was the start really for me, learning that I could change lives by inspiring young people.”

While he enjoyed the physical challenges of mountaineering, the goal setting and conquering, Tremain on the other hand was more spiritual in a sense, and wanted to upon his eyes to the value of nature and its wonders.

“It’s the link between health and the natural world is absolutely fundamental. If we’re not linked with nature, we make some terrible mistakes and we’re seeing that starting to happen now, we’re struggling to keep our water clean,” Sir Graeme says.

“I mean the interesting thing about this whole climate change debate is that young people are leading it, it’s not the older people who actually control the money and so on, it’s the young people who are going to lead it and in the future will clean up the world.”

Wilkinson says she was inspired to get involved with Project K from her own personal experience of fitting into that same profile of kids that they now help.

“I was a bit of a late bloomer and it wasn’t until I was 26 that I actually had a sense that I could make a difference in my own life … so I was about 10 years behind everyone else.”

After graduating from university, she was invited by Sir Graeme for a trip to the Arctic, which she says she initially was daunted by, but later accepted as a learning experience and a chance to push her own boundaries.