Regional | Rotorua

"Like fish out of water” - at-risk rangatahi embrace waka ama

The National Secondary Schools Waka Ama competition has come to an end but for a school of struggling Rotorua rangatahi, the journey has only just begun.

Awhina School has a total role of 16 students.  Head teacher Kairo McLean says most come from struggling whānau and find it difficult to find their place in Rotorua's four largest mainstream high schools.

"They're disengaged and sort of at-risk at their own schools so they come to Awhina School for that support and close whānau unit.

"They come to Awhina for behavioural issues, social and sometimes learning and developmental needs."

After a year of volunteering in the loading bay, the students and teachers decided to take the plunge and enter the competition.

"We've been training with Waiariki Purea Trust for the last two terms."

For the first time in the school's history, Awhina were represented by six young men in the junior 16 boys grade.

"We just wanted to put the kids out of their comfort zone and work on their social skills and interacting because they don't get a chance to interact with other kura."

With more that 150 schools registered and almost 2,000 paddlers, positive interactions were inevitable.

"They were a bit like fish out of water but once they started to mingle, they were awesome.

"They also paired up with Hamilton Girls' College to form a double-hull team."

Despite their debut, the team managed to reach a plate semi final.  McLean says the real reward is the impact that taking part has had on the students.

"It's really empowering- being here amongst the whānau, the students, it's awesome."

"Every day we tell these kids, 'you can't pull the gang signs, you can't swear, you can't do certain things in public'.

"We haven't had to do that this week.  They've all risen up and I haven't heard a swearword or one gang [cry].  They've really stepped up.

"We'll definitely be back next year."