Rugby legend Jonah Lomu once said to get through the toughest periods of his life, he had to look within. “I don’t give up. Never have, never will.”
That quote is now inscribed on hoodies all over Te Puke which are proudly warn by teens who have graduated from Te Puke High School’s CACTUS programme.
CACTUS stands for ‘Combined Adolescent Challenge Training Unit and Support’ and is a community-based programme that is run all over the country, usually by members of the NZ Police force.
Te Puke is unique in that it’s organised by four dedicated high school teachers instead – Melissa Holst, Emma Jamieson, Paul Ferris and Jeff East. Melissa says the 8 week-long physical training programme is a huge mental challenge that fosters leadership, team work, communication and discipline.
“It proves to them that they can do anything in life if they set their mind to it. It also proves that they can’t do it alone,” she explains.
“You need to make those connections with other people in your community. If teenagers can learn to ask for help and tackle challenges as a team, life is going to be so much easier.”
CACTUS programmes are held twice a year in Te Puke, usually in the first and third school terms. Around 30 kids are chosen from Year 9 to 13 and they’re expected to train together three mornings a week from 6:15am – 7:15am followed by a cooked breakfast and evaluation session.
“Our criteria is to pick at-risk students who might be disengaged from school or are facing big challenges in life. We also look for middle-of-the-road students who could do better attendance-wise or academically at school, and then we have the role models who we think have fantastic leadership potential but they’re not reaching it at the moment and need an extra boost.”
Melissa says the ‘military style’ sessions feature tough physical challenges and the programme culminates in a ‘shortest night, longest day’ event.
“Our trainer wakes us up at 4am and we do a 12 hour day of fitness and mental challenges.”
Carrying logs or sand bags to the top of the Mount; doing squats, burpees and press ups at Kaiate Falls; racing up the Papamoa Hills; and swimming across the Maketu Estuary are just some of the activities that are crammed into the day. The final task is to pull a fire engine twice around Te Puke High School’s rugby field – a task that seems impossible for kids who are already exhausted.
“You’re meant to get to that mentally low point where you want to give up but then everyone else encourages you and pulls you through. It’s all about strategy and team work. You don’t think you’re able to do it but you can.”
Melissa says the enormous buzz and personal growth that each student experiences is what CACTUS is all about.
“We’ve had massive breakthroughs with some kids who have stormed off during training sessions but have then stood up and apologised to everyone at breakfast afterwards for their behavior. That type of development is really amazing.”
This year BayTrust has granted $10,000 towards Te Puke’s CACTUS programme which Melissa says is enough to fund one entire course. The money will be used to help pay for the pair of running shoes and team training shirts that each teenager receives, along with the cooked breakfast, transport, and personal trainer costs.
“Without this funding we would have to drop down to one CACTUS session a year instead of two and that’s 30 kids who would miss out on this amazing opportunity.”