Graeme Dingle

A cup to be filled

Snowy-haired mountaineer and adventurer GRAEME DINGLE is amid one of his greatest adventures yet – helping young New Zealanders.

Graeme’s adventures and mountaineering exploits could fill several books – and do so – but he counts among his greatest achievements the young lives turned around by the work of the Foundation for Youth Development which he founded with his wife, lawyer Jo-anne Wilkinson in 1994.

One of his favourite stories is a 14-year-old Auckland girl who took part in Project K, a wilderness challenge and year-long mentoring programme which targets year 10 students with low self confidence.

Katie had been a troubled girl who hung her head constantly and struggled to speak to anyone. Three years after she had participated in Project K Graeme asked if she would speak about her experience at a black-tie function.

“There were 400 scarily ‘successful’ people in the audience. Katie was now a statuesque young woman of 17. She walked gracefully onto the stage, head held high and said “Hello, my name is Katie Wysoczanski. Three years ago I did a Project K programme. At the time I was feeling very bad. My brother had just committed suicide and I was thinking of doing the same. I wasn’t doing any good at school but now I’m doing Bursary………and I’m doing okay. [Kiwi for doing quite well.] In Project K they make you set goals. One of the goals I set was to get in the North Harbour netball team, and last week I was chosen.”

Her speech was met with thunderous applause – and some tears.

Graeme says even just one “Katie” is a far greater achievement than climbing a mountain.

That may seem hard to believe given the nature of some of his adventuring achievements, including an epic 28,000 kilometre circuit of the Arctic, numerous first ascents in New Zealand, the Himalayas, Europe and South America, and a 1,200 kilometre traverse of the Southern Alps in winter, with friend Jill Tremain.

It was Jill, during the Southern Alps traverse in 1971, who sowed the first seeds of social responsibility in Graeme when she said to him, out of the blue “You know Graeme, life is a cup to be filled, not a measure to be drained.”

“It made me realise that I was actually a boring, self-centred bastard, obsessed with mountaineering, and that my cup would never be full unless I started doing stuff for other people.”

The “stuff” that the 26-year-old Graeme decided to do for other people was to set up an outdoor education centre that would enable thousands of high school students to experience challenge and achievement in the outdoors.

The centre opened in 1973, and carried on after Graeme left. It is now well established as the Sir Edmund Hillary Outdoor Pursuit Centre of New Zealand (OPC), a leader in outdoor education.

“OPC was really the beginning of the journey to the Foundation for Youth Development.”

Graeme’s decision to do something for young people was underpinned by his belief that not all kids fit the mould of the school system.

Graeme had struggled with school. Bright and energetic but skinny and bullied, school appeared pointless and unpleasant for him until an intermediate school teacher spotted his natural talent for art.

She told him that she believed he had what it took to be a great artist.

“She was the first teacher to give me hope in my future.”
At Hutt Valley High School, Graeme was placed in Latin and language classes.

Intelligent, but utterly disengaged from every subject except art, his headmaster wrote on his report: Graeme must understand his education is not complete in only one subject. Graeme has always disagreed with that.

“The reality is that if you can find and develop the thing that kids are passionate about – the thing that really spins their wheels – you are halfway to making a complete person.

“Art fired me up for some years and gave me the confidence to try mountaineering. And mountaineering taught me about maths, literature, physics and humanity. It gave me my real education.”

Decades on, other experiences have also shaped the motivation and philosophy of the Foundation for Youth Development.

In 1988, Graeme made an epic 1,100 kilometre journey with a group of six violent offenders, from Picton to Maungakiekie (One Tree Hill) by kayak, foot and mountain bike.

As a result of that tough trip, he pledged that he would do more to impact on negative youth behaviour in a lasting way, and began to develop a concept which would be an alternative to prison for young offenders.

In 1994, fresh home from adventures overseas, Graeme and Jo-anne were struck by the barrage of negative news about New Zealand’s young people – teen pregnancies, suicide, youth incarceration. The final straw came when they saw the movie Once Were Warriors.

Driving home they decided it was time for action. In a country as small and caring as New Zealand, it must be possible to direct young people down more positive paths.

Lives of outdoor adventure and professional achievement had taught them the value of having a dream, setting goals, sticking to it and having sound values to lean on in tough times.

If young people could have the opportunity to develop in this way, it must be possible for more of them to reach their potential.

Graeme and Jo-anne were determined that whatever they did, it had to make a long-lasting national impact.

A high-powered board of trustees including educational specialists, and “the best social sector and business brains in the country” was crucial. So was solid scientific research to identify what would work, and then to prove that it did.

The resulting programme was Project K – K stands for koru, the symbol of new life. Also kids, kiwi, kia kaha, knowledge, kin and so on. Project K is a wilderness challenge and mentoring programme which targets year 10 students with low self confidence.

Fifteen years on, Project K has grown side-shoots – Pacifica and Kura – and has been joined by other youth development programmes managed under the umbrella of the Foundation of Youth Development.

Kiwi Can is a whole-school values and life skills programme targeted at five to 12-year-olds. Stars is a programme for Year 9 students entering secondary school, using trained year 12 and 13 students as mentors.

The MYND programme is for 14 to 17-year-old offenders referred by the Police or Child, Youth and Family.

Achievers are celebrated at an annual awards ceremony.
The Foundation is also promoting collaboration and professionalism in the youth development sector as a whole, and has formed alliances with other organisations who work with youth.

From modest beginnings, the Foundation now reaches around 20,000 young people each year. Its programmes run throughout New Zealand.

“We have people at the coal face in every region – about 800 across the country,” says Graeme. “And growing fast.”