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Turning a corner: Why this wayward Auckland teen stayed in school

Acer Ah Chee-Wilson and Sir Graeme Dingle. Photo/Sylvie Whinray

On his way to dropping out of high school, a west Auckland teen found himself turning a corner, thanks to a one-on-one mentoring programme.

When Acer Ah Chee-Wilson was 14, he wanted to be in a gang. Now, at 21, he’s an arborist, is planning to head overseas on a working holiday and has just won the 2018 Sir Edmund Hillary Youth Achievement Award.

The former Waitākere College student struggled at high school – in fact, he hated it. 

“I just found it better outside of school, getting up to mischief with my mates.”

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“My brothers and I would steal radios and sell them, steal cars and crash them, break windows of homes and cars.”

Then he was introduced by the school to Project K, a 14-month programme run by the Graeme Dingle Foundation, which pairs teens with mentors, as well getting them to do outdoor activities and challenges. The aim is to build teens’ confidence in themselves and help them find purpose and direction.

Ah Chee-Wilson was paired with a man named Tony, who he credits as the reason why he stayed in school and went to university. His mentor checked in with him regularly about schoolwork and his personal life.  

“Tony stepped up, he carried on with me, helping me out, helping me stay out of trouble. He’d give my mum a call, and he’d come hang out with me at school or outside of school. We’d go to Burger King, rugby games, or for a bike ride.”

It sounds pretty simple – Ah Chee-Wilson likens it to just two mates hanging out, but he says this completely changed his life. He is still in touch with his mentor today: “We’re boys”.

Ah Chee-Wilson says it felt great to win the award because he’d never won anything outside of school. “I finished school and thought ‘I won’t get any more awards or achieve anything’ so it was pretty good when I found out I got it.”

Ah Chee-Wilson hopes to be a mentor himself in the future, after going overseas to Australia and Canada for a working holiday.

The awards, held by the Graeme Dingle Foundation, recognised 22 young people who have gone on to achieve success after being involved in the foundation’s youth development programmes.

The Foundation’s namesake, mountaineer and outdoor education pioneer, co-founder Sir Graeme Dingle, says the awards perfectly showcase what the Foundation lives and breathes – transforming young lives forever.

For Ah Chee-Wilson, it showed him he could become more than a drop-out: “I’ve looked further into the future, to where I want to be and to who I’m going to be.”

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