POY: Making a difference

Talking about ‘the best stuff he’s ever done’ is Te Awamutu News’ Person of the Year, Chris Graham.

Chris Graham’s boxing academy’s 2020 recipient of the Police Commissioner Andrew Coster’s “Challenge Coin” is Raureti Ngaheu.

The award is given for ‘demonstrating and role modelling the values of the Te Awamutu Boxing Academy and the New Zealand Police – respect, responsibility, compassion, consideration, kindness, duty, obedience, honesty and truthfulness’. Raureti’s citation praised his consistency and commitment, the important part he played in gym life his politeness and caring and exemplary manners.

This year’s prizegiving also saw three life membership certificates presented to those who memorised all eight lengthy values. The three recipients – Weston Oldfield, Cameron Emmett and Bailey Smith – can go fees-free at any of the country’s Billy Graham Youth Foundation academies.

A man who is improving the lives of Te Awamutu’s young people through friendship, discipline and boxing has become Te Awamutu News’ Person of the Year for 2020.

Chris Graham founded and started the Te Awamutu Boxing Academy about 18 months ago under the umbrella of the Te Awamutu Youth Development Trust.  The long-time teacher and youth worker knew the positive impact boxing could have on young lives; he had trained in the sport as a boy, and his brother Billy Graham is the former Australasian boxing champion who started a boxing academy in Naenae as one of several now run nationwide through the Billy Graham Youth Foundation.

Chris knew boxing could benefit the kids of Te Awamutu.  When he opened the academy he wanted to help youngsters foster friendships and build self-esteem in such a way that it created pathways to a more positive future.

They started with 10 in mid-2019, and now have over 100 boys and girls between the ages of nine and 18.  They come from around the region, and many, said Chris, have made real strides in improving their lives – something he puts down to accepting each other on a level playing field, and the messages of respect that are central to training sessions where kids are noticed and successes are rewarded. He also offers help on school issues and has helped steer young adults into the workplace.

“I’ve definitely seen a change to some of the kids.  They’re not just members, they are friends. They greet you differently when you see them around town,” said Chris.

The community knows it, too.  Police are right behind what the academy does, as are a growing number of businesses offering support.  The numbers of individuals and school groups has grown to the point where Chris has moved from part-time to full-time head coach, sharing the weekly programme of classes with co-coaches, Quentin Wallace and the academy’s manager and female coach, Erinna Lane.

Erinna is also Chris’s daughter.  She is equally driven to promote better outcomes for young people and is involved across other projects intended to raise awareness around their wellbeing.  She leads the thriving girls’ programme at the academy, something she started at the beginning of 2020.

The academy uses boxing as a teaching tool, Chris said, and central to that are eight values that form a ‘Passport to Success’. They are displayed on the walls, and include respect, compassion, duty, obedience, responsibility, kindness and more.  Those who memorise the values are rewarded with life membership.

Youngsters come from all types of families and walks of life, and all sessions begin with a focused one-on-one greeting.  “Connecting with each individual is really important. We’re like an extended family here and we want to keep it that way.  It is important that each kid knows we have their back.”

Te Awamutu Police constable Ryan Fleming said police have a great relationship with the boxing academy, and fully support the work they do with youth.

“The academy teaches values to youth which are in line with the same values we as police strive to live up to,” he said, “Chris is an integral part of this process locally and a good deal of youth in our area are lucky to have his mentorship.”

Te Awamutu senior constable Scott Miller, who works closely with the academy, described it as a “proven model that has worked wonders in other communities, and is a huge boost for the youth and their whanau in our town”.

“The academy works because it has all the right people from the community wanting it to succeed for all the right reasons. It’s a place for the youth of Te Awamutu to be inspired and have a sense of worth among their peers.”

Chris is busy planning 2021. At the end of the day, while boxing is the conduit, it’s not everything, he said.

“Some of these kids will never be boxers – and that’s OK.  But they come back week after week. They love the camaraderie, they enjoy the coaches, they build great relationships.

“I’ve been working with kids for 40 years, but this is the best stuff I’ve ever done.  I love it,” he grinned.

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