At Tauranga Youth Search And Rescue (YSAR), teenagers become all round great human beings.
WORDS SUE HOFFART IMAGES YSAR / PENNY BARROW
During their first year of outdoor training, Tauranga Youth Search and Rescue (YSAR) students are banned from sleeping in tents. Instead, the teenagers learn to string a tarpaulin between tree branches to get as much shelter and sleep as they can during gruelling all-weekend exercises in the Kaimai ranges.
Their lessons have a serious, life-saving purpose. At night, they must be prepared to leap from their sleeping bags at any time, grab their emergency kit and global positioning systems, and head into the bush in search of lost or injured people.
This is what they signed up for; sodden feet, exhaustion, education and camaraderie while they learn to take care of themselves in difficult outdoor environments and eventually aid police and skilled volunteers with official searches.
The YSAR programme was launched in Tauranga almost a decade ago by former police officer Steve Campbell and several colleagues who recognised existing search and rescue volunteers were ageing and numbers were dwindling. They designed a three-year programme that annually accepts about two dozen new students from around the Western Bay of Plenty. In February this year, the programme was delivered to young Aucklanders for the first time.
Successful applicants are aged between 14 and 18 and, since that first intake in late 2008, more than 275 teenagers have attended weekly classroom lessons and monthly camps. During field exercises, the students are awake early, hauling laden packs up impossibly steep tracks and crossing rivers that guarantee their mud-caked boots will remain cold and wet all day.
They learn tracking techniques, plant identification and drone operation skills as well as coastguard and first aid qualifications. What’s more, every student is expected to participate in volunteer activities. Last year, their volunteer work included marshalling at the annual breast cancer fundraising night walks in the Papamoa Hills and aiding the Department of Conservation with pest control work.
“We’re aiming to create multi-skilled young people who will be invaluable to their community,” Steve says. “It’s highly likely some of these kids will go on to save lives but they’re also going to be great human beings.”
This year’s Auckland pilot project involves ten teenagers who attend weekly classes at the Unitec Campus in Pt Chevalier, then join the Tauranga contingent for joint monthly field exercises. Eventually, the organisation plans to roll out the programme nationwide.
“There is huge demand for what we’re doing in Tauranga,” Steve says. “For years now, I’ve been fielding a lot of enquiries from people in Gisborne, Christchurch, Canterbury, even Hong Kong and Canada, asking us to bring the programme to their area.” He and a team of volunteers have spent more than a year developing teaching resources and systems that will enable expansion. Steve says participants learn to look after themselves in a variety of environments, to help others and to accept leadership.
“We start with the absolute basics. How to efficiently pack a backpack, cook for yourself and dress properly when the rain is blowing sideways in the middle of winter. By the time they graduate, they’ll have clocked up 1600 hours of their own time, gaining experience and some quite impressive qualifications. They’ll know how to manage and work with a team of people and operate some pretty technical equipment. The personal development we see is just huge.”
In May last year, four YSAR students were invited to address delegates at a search and rescue conference in Australia, discussing the role of innovative technology in emergency management. Students have been invited to address another two conferences this year.
Steve says the course increasingly focuses on technology and demonstrates the practical application of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. This in turn leads to career and training opportunities in these fields. “And most importantly, the students love it. At the end of a weekend exercise, they’re often exhausted and muddy and sore but they’re beaming and justifiably proud of themselves. They know they’re doing something worthwhile.
Former Otumoetai College student Alex Groos will complete her final YSAR year while beginning bio medical studies at Auckland University. The 18-year-old, who has twice scooped the organisation’s top award for her year level, plans to join a voluntary search and rescue team while studying medicine. Last year, Alex’s YSAR-related technology skills saw her speak at a conference in Australia, and she is convinced she won a tertiary education scholarship because YSAR was on her resume. Two years into the programme, she has also learned a lot about herself.
“You develop the ability to push through things physically and emotionally,” she says. “I’ve developed problem solving skills — a huge part of YSAR. It is quite a huge effort to be able to get through some of those camps, like climbing up the side of Tongariro. You become really resilient.”
She reels off a list of discoveries: finding new strengths and understanding when to seek help, experiencing both leadership and teamwork roles, learning to communicate with a range of adults. And while her peers fretted about heading off to university, Alex remains unfazed. “Being in YSAR just makes you mature more quickly; it really prepares you to leave home.”
In November last year, Steve Campbell and fellow founding YSAR tutor Bob Mankelow received ‘local hero’ medals for their ongoing work with the organisation. The men were two of 10 Western Bay of Plenty residents named in the annual Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year awards. Every year, a team of skilled local men and women each donate hundreds of volunteer hours alongside Bob and Steve, to collectively deliver 175 training modules and supervise the students in the outdoors.
Students pay less than $500 a year in fees, so the programme is largely funded through community grants and fundraising activities. “Our operational funding comes from groups that support youth development and recognise young people have the potential to solve real world problems,” Steve says. “They’re also drawn to our culture of social responsibility, that motivation to give back to the community.”