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Youth help impaired rangatahi reach new pinnacles

Teenage climbers are helping their disabled peers to soar. The six able-bodied rangatahi are bolstering impaired adolescents to brave dizzying heights through an indoor climbing initiative in The West.

They strive to make a difference to the community in their own small way in this youth-led disability programme, says Auckland Sport Climbing Chair Michael O’Keefe. “The uniqueness of the sessions creates a place where these kids feel part of something, part of a community,” he says. “It's about…. putting out the welcome mat to kids less fortunate than themselves, giving them a place with their support so that those kids can find their own moment of greatness, of acceptance, of smiles and challenges.”

It all started during a values session in 2020 when Tyra, a 15-year-old climber, appealed to get involved in decision-making at her club, Auckland Climbing Youth Development. The unassuming youth founded the group’s disability programme which she now leads with five peers. “Tyra started in our club as a shy young pre-teen,” Michael says. “The first time I met her she was literally trying to hide behind her mum. Over time, like any others within the climbing community, she found a sense of self-belief, self-worth, and confidence, and grew into an amazing young leader.”

The difference created by a programme led by children and designed for children is phenomenal, he says. “We have had parents say professional rehabilitation and occupational therapists have never had their child achieve so much. We have kids who have created genuine bonds of friendship with each other, where both abled and disabled kids look forward to the sessions and meeting each other.”

Michael describes the initiative as an amazing success story simply built on the concept of kids helping kids. “One of my best moments in this club has come from it, something that will sit with me forever.”

During the programme’s debut session, he met a teenage boy with cerebral palsy who relied on a walker for mobility. The 16-year-old struggled to manage his limbs and endurance as it took a phenomenal amount of strength and willpower to get around, Michael says. “At that first meeting I told him if he keeps coming along, we will get him to the top of the wall. He told me then and there that he would get to the top and said it with such clarity and determination that you couldn’t help but take notice. Every session he turned up with a grin on his face and determination in his soul to get a little bit higher, to do a little bit more.”

Every session, young people would climb alongside him, shift his feet, demonstrate where his hands should go, hold his weight when he needed a rest, and belay him. “This was truly kids working with each other for a single purpose, and slowly, inch by inch, they got a little higher,” Michael says.

During the fifth class, the teen reached the summit of the wall which towered 12 metres. “He got to do the hanging victory dance. The look of share overwhelming pride and pleasure on his face was only mirrored by those kids who were there beside him. The rest of us who witnessed the moment were in stunned awe.”

The young climber has found his niche in the programme where "he is just one of the boys," Michael says. "It doesn’t sound like much, but the positive impact of that moment lasts well longer than the two-hour session.”

Auckland Climbing Youth Development runs multiple programmes for different at-risk youth groups but funding them proves to be challenging, he says. “We have more schools and kids that we would be keen to support but just don’t have the financial resources to do it. It’s heartbreaking at times. We see kids who find a love for what we do, hear stories from parents and teachers about how much these programmes make a difference but there just isn’t the resource to help these kids in a more meaningful manner.”

However, a $5000 grant from the Your West Support Fund has given the disabilities programme a welcome boost. “Your West Support Fund enables our club to keep focussing on our youth-led programmes that work within our community,” Michael says. “The Trusts have been a long-time supporter of what we are trying to achieve. Every grant big or small builds a picture, a story of support and confidence, and for the youth involved, it reinforces a belief in their ability to create real change and impact.”