Dreams turn to reality

Former Invercargill man Scott Gilmour with some of the Auckland students whose lives he's been able to turn around.
Former Invercargill man Scott Gilmour with some of the Auckland students whose lives he's been able to turn around.

A class of grateful Kiwi kids says IT entrepreneur and former Invercargill man Scott Gilmour has turned their lives around. Sue Fea catches up with the reluctant hero, his high-achieving young dreamers and the man who helped him make it happen.

A bunch of underprivileged Auckland children say they would have probably hit the streets and joined gangs if former Invercargill man Scott Gilmour had not invested so generously in their future.

Ten years ago, the successful IT entrepreneur put his money where his mouth is and began work to change the lives of an entire class of 53 Maori and Pacific Island children at Wesley Primary School, providing them with tutoring, mentoring and guidance.

It was the first branch of the I Have A Dream Foundation outside the United States, with the aim to work with the group of children, known as the Dreamers, and their families from their primary school years through to university.

Each project has its own sponsors, its own full-time project co-ordinator, and a group of volunteers who serve as tutors and mentors and work in various other roles to provide Dreamers with the support of additional caring adults.

A carrot is also offered - those who do make it to tertiary education have their course fees paid.

Did this investment work?

The facts speak for themselves. Of the 38 children left living in New Zealand, 32 graduated from year 13 last month. All are destined for university and tertiary education this year, so Gilmour is keeping his end of the deal - writing out the cheques for another four years.

With 19 per cent of the class coming from families with youth gang involvement, the teens say that without him, they would have been on a slippery slope, which, for many, could have ended in jail.

It has been a hard slog for all involved, but for the head dreamer, Gilmour, and his head coach, project co-ordinator Ant Backhouse, the dream has come true, with the first milestone now reached.

The biggest smiles were reserved for Gilmour and Backhouse at a grand graduation ceremony at Auckland's Eden Park on December 12. There, 250 to 300 friends and family members lavished colourful leis and proud smiles on those who had made it.

The youngsters say they will be forever grateful for this incredible investment of time, money and love.

Take Kenese Samia. He had been kicked out of school several times and grew up with family violence at home. Backhouse says he has emerged with an obvious talent for public speaking and is headed to university to study Pacific development.

He dearly wants to become a social worker and help other children like him.

"His old high-school deputy principal often tells me he wouldn't be here without the programme," says Backhouse.

Kenese also lost a little brother as a child and says many times he felt like giving up and leaving school.

"I was 17, but acted like a 10-year-old. We are truly blessed to have a guy like Scott come into our lives. He taught me about goal setting, a dream to strive for.

"This programme moulded me into the man I am today. I actually wouldn't have even known what uni was or how to succeed in life."

As a result, he will never let anyone define who he is.

"I wouldn't let someone into my life to draw a line in the sand and say you'll never get over that line. These are all Pakeha people who have invested money and time into us and it's truly been a blessing," says Kenese.

Mosa'ati Mafileo is also eternally grateful. "I would have been on the streets, totally. I'm living in a gang-affiliated area.

"I come from a very poor background. Family members are working at 16," says Mosa.

This year, Mosa was awarded Dux Artium at Mount Albert Grammar School and was selected as the mayor's youth representative on the Auckland Council for Mt Roskill's Puketapapa community.

He is off to university to pursue a degree in communications and public relations and hopes to become a TV presenter, politician or a clinical psychologist.

"I have the nature of helping people. I'm emotionally wise. I can't thank them enough. You can't measure the money, time and effort that's gone into us."

Salote Makasini says the programme has given her confidence.

"Without it, I wouldn't have been taking the right subjects, or had the tutoring. It would have been a real struggle studying for exams. Now I'm going to the University of Otago to study health sciences. I want to be a paediatrician and go work in Tonga."

The son of the late Ian Gilmour, whose family founded The Southland Times, and his wife, Jean, Gilmour has long held a passion to ensure all children get a good education.

At 55, Gilmour still has an infectious and youthful enthusiasm for getting the best out of life, something which he has imprinted on this adopted class of kids. He is as proud of these children as he is of his own four. Most of them have overcome major hurdles at home that most middle-class Pakeha children never have to face.

"I'm very comfortable this works. We've learnt a lot and we think we've got some good answers to this problem," he says.

It has been a hands-on, high-cost commitment, but they are now keen to tackle the problem more cheaply and on a bigger scale.

"We ran a control group of 40 right through from Wesley Primary School. These kids were a year ahead of our Dreamers. Of those, 22 were left in high school in year 13 last year at two local high schools. Only a few of those 22 got University Entrance and passed NCEA Level 3."

A principal from an Upper Hutt school has been observing the programme in the hope of replicating its success, but while Gilmour is chuffed most made it, that is not enough.

He has spent a lot of money on research each year tracking the Dreamers' results against the comparison group.

"Next year's report will be the most pivotal. We will be able to eventually track jobs, tax and incomes."

If he can prove, as was done in the United States, that these children end up in better jobs with higher earnings, paying higher tax and are less cost to the Government, it will have been a success. "One kid in jail costs the country $100,000 a year."

In 2002, after a successful IT career in the US, Gilmour, who grew up attending Waihopi Primary School and James Hargest High School in Invercargill, sold his software company, ABC Technology, to US giant SAS.

He and his American wife, Mary, had already moved their family to Auckland.

Gilmour brought with him a dream to see the successful US I Have a Dream programme working in his home country.

He is passionate about education. He gets angry when he sees what appears to be second-class treatment for those who are not expected to achieve. It's all about making schools' NCEA pass rates look good, he says.

"As a society, we're managing kids out of, rather than in to school."

"These are the kids of the future. By 2040, more than 50 per cent of kids born in New Zealand will be of Maori or Pasifika ethnicity. We need to educate them better if we want a better society," he says.

He takes this as his personal responsibility.

"There's a neat quote in Deuteronomy [in the Bible]: ‘Each of you must bring a gift in proportion to the way the Lord your God has blessed you'.

"Mahatma Gandhi said, ‘Be the change you wish to see in the world'.

"For me, it's been a selfish act. I have received far more from this than the Dreamers."

Every year, between 40 and 50 Mt Albert and Mt Roskill Grammar students volunteer as tutors.

"People bag the younger generation, but they're neat. Three girls came to help us as year-12 tutors and carried on to varsity.

"Now, two of them are our mentors. One is doing a PhD in neuroscience and she has been mentoring our kids for 10 years."

Only one of the students dropped out of the programme and ended up in jail. Although for Gilmour and Backhouse that is one too many, it certainly beats the odds in Mt Roskill.

Two others still living in New Zealand pursued tertiary foundation studies last year.

One, who gave up school last year to have a baby, intends to return to study next year. One struggled academically and left last year to work full time.

Of the rest, who all moved to Australia - many with families seeking work during the recession, one left to join the development squad for the Canberra Raiders rugby league team and another to pursue rugby league recruitment.

As he reels off their plans, he could not be more proud of his young proteges. At least 12 will begin university degrees this year and another 17 will continue with certificate and diploma level studies, moving onto degree level when they are ready.

Of these, three are headed for health science and medical school, one into dentistry, one into communications, two into design, two into sport and recreation and one into the arts.

Another is headed for performing or television presenting, another to be a teacher, five into social or youth work to help others like them and one has been accepted into the Whitecliffe's School of Design, chasing a career as a fashion designer.

However, there have been huge highs and lows, as the Dreamers struggled to stay on the right pathway.

Gilmour says none of this could have been achieved without the huge input of Backhouse, mentor co-ordinator Lynn Su'a and a host of volunteer mentors, both adults and youth.

He says he is so fortunate that Backhouse, an experienced Christian youth leader who founded the Urban Hope Wesley Trust with his wife, stayed the whole 10 years.

"It's such a tough job, but the kids just love him.

"Anna Moala is a neat kid. Last year, Ant was having to go to her home and knock on the door and say, ‘C'mon, we're going to school'."

Anna was being directed away from university subjects by her school and guided into non-academic pathways. This year, her Dreamers mentor and husband took her in to live with them. She has already achieved University Entrance and is now off to university to be a teacher.

A keen tramper, Gilmour recalls fondly his days at Gladstone Scout Troop camps in Southland and family tramping trips.

He and his family have regularly joined the Dreamers on tramps - growing experiences they would never have otherwise been exposed to.

"One time we took the kids to Lake Waikaremoana and I led them to the wrong bay. It ended up being 19-kilometres and a 10-hour walk to the hut.

"At one point, Anna collapsed wearily on the side of the track and said, ‘I can't believe you white people do this for fun!' " Gilmour says, laughing.

Most of the children weren't read to at home and in the early days reading was a struggle. Their parents speak English as a second language and often work two jobs to make ends meet.

"Our middle-class lifestyles are pretty sweet. It's been a real eye-opener for me. Many of these kids live in small damp, overcrowded houses and miss heaps of school."

So Gilmour's wife, Mary, gathered a group of volunteer mums and they read to the Dreamers after school.

Computers were also installed in every Dreamers' home.

"These kids needed an advocate. Their parents don't understand NCEA, not even their school reports."

For Backhouse, the graduation was very emotional. He is a father of four and there has been a cost to his own family life running the daily after-school programme and managing late-night texts from kids needing help.

"But this hasn't been a job for me. It's part of my life. I see them as part of my family. There's a real magic and emotion in that. My heart's bled at times when they've made poor choices.

"Kenese's old high-school deputy principal often tells me he wouldn't be here without the programme," says Backhouse.

"We're trying to teach them to be tomorrow's leaders of the next generation."

It's not over yet. While Gilmour continues to write the cheques, Backhouse will continue to track the children through their tertiary education.

"From now on, I'll be the dot-connector, making sure they know how to use the library and resources and tracking their academic progress.

"They've always called me ‘Coach', but at the graduation, they introduced me as their ‘white dad'," a title he wears proudly.

"I'm guessing we'll have a few 21sts to attend in the future."

For Gilmour, who reluctantly received a Local Hero award this year and was a finalist in the New Zealander of the Year awards, accolades are definitely not what it's about.

"Every kid is born with something. No kid is born bad. They just lack the right nurturing. It's about finding each kid's passion, what makes them happy. "I've always told my kids, if they can follow their passion, they'll never work a day in their life."

The Southland Times