The Billy Graham Youth Foundation (BGYF) has grown out of the success of the Naenae Boxing Academy in Lower Hutt. The gym uses boxing as a vehicle to teach and develop life skills, combining passion for the sport with cultivating a culture of building resilience and relationships.

When the Billy Graham Youth Foundation (BGYF) talks about champions, it goes far beyond being a winner in the boxing ring—even though several of those have been trained through their academies.

To them, a champion is somebody who has grown up to become their best self. It is about any young athlete who walks through their doors and becomes a good brother, a good sister, a good parent, a good employee. Someone who has developed self-confidence and skill, but also a heart for their neighbours.

‘We love boxing—that’s the vehicle—but central to our purpose is not only that they’re succeeding for themselves, but they also then contribute back into their communities,’ says David Graham, CEO of BGYF.

The foundation is named after David’s father, New Zealand boxing great Billy Graham, who pioneered their first academy in the mid-2000s.

‘Dad was a Naenae boy, grew up here in the 50s and got into trouble more often than not. The local policeman brought him into the boxing gym … that helped him turn his life around, and that’s how he came to faith,’ David explains.

What followed was a successful athletic career in boxing, but also a desire to one day open a boxing gym to replicate his experience for more teenagers. Naenae Boxing Academy was launched in 2006 (coincidentally, in a former Salvation Army building), as a place for young people to train and box, but also to acquire and develop life skills.

Boxing may be an individual sport at face value; however, because everybody trains together as a team, it helps athletes to grow in self-confidence and independence while simultaneously developing teamwork and trust in those around them. What results is a community of well-rounded, outwardly focused individuals with increased resilience to face the challenges of life.

For some, that might be the turbulent nature of growing up. Others may have seen their lives touched by violence or disadvantage. The academy has seen people from all kinds of backgrounds—from refugees to CEOs’ sons—pass through its doors and step into a safe space where everyone is equal. There are no cliques. Nobody interrupts or calls names. Everyone cleans up at the end of class.

‘When you walk into the academy, you won’t have a coach come and shake your hand—you’ll have 20 nine-year-olds come and shake your hand,’ David says. ‘They set the standards; they build community as much as coaches do.

‘We’ve got well over a thousand kids going through these academies each week. To be able to support youth development practice and the boxing practice and combine those two together is magic.’


A Strong Foundation

After witnessing the transformative work emerging out of Naenae Boxing Academy, other communities reached out to them, seeking the same empowerment for their own young people.

David, who grew up boxing and then moved into coaching at the academy, received a World of Difference grant from the Vodafone New Zealand Foundation in 2014. Those funds supported research into what made the Naenae Boxing Academy model special, and an extension grant provided a further three years to see how they could support other communities to replicate this model. In 2015, BGYF was established for national oversight.

They now support five academies—in Naenae, Lower Hutt and Cannons Creek in Porirua, Mid-Canterbury, Te Awamutu and West Auckland—and are preparing to launch a sixth at Snells Beach.

All five academies have a waitlist to join; at the beginning of the year, there were over 240 people hoping to join the Naenae gym. While it is disappointing to have to turn away families, David is encouraged to know they are filling a need and that young people are enthusiastic about getting involved.

‘If we’re interested in developing that social connectedness between diverse communities and diverse peoples—which is what we’re all about—then you need a vehicle that’s going to attract diverse people,’ David says. ‘For some reason, they seem to be attracted to boxing.’

In recent years, their academies have also expanded to offer classes for girls and young women.

‘Supporting young people to pursue purpose and potential and then develop that outward focus is just as needed for our young women as our young men, as it is for young people that are working through their sexual orientation,’ David says. ‘We’ve got safe environments. 
We know that we love people, so let’s go about supporting them and learning from them as much as we can.’

He believes what sets their gyms apart is the culture of everyone giving to each other and benefitting and learning from each other in equal measures.

‘I receive as much from those young people as what I can, hopefully, support them with,’ he says. ‘When one person walks into a room and they’re having a hard day, it needs to be that the community gets around them and shares the weight. ‘We belong to this kaupapa that has been and will be of communities supporting communities.’

If success can be defined for BGYF, it boils down to building relationships. ‘There’s this pressure that’s placed on the youth development, social services world that you can quantify success as you would any other KPI (key performance indicator) in a business setting,’ he explains. ‘For me, we’ve got young people that are journeying with each other. We’ve got relationships. That’s success.

‘Everybody’s “at risk”—if you’re at risk of growing up to be a chauvinist who is not interested in supporting those around you, then you’re “at risk”. If you are at risk of topping yourself at 13, then you are “at risk”,’ David says. ‘That’s why I’m involved in BGYF, because we’ve got a chance to support every young person and to be supported by every young person.

‘You don’t know what’s going to happen in six months’ time, because for a lot of the young people that we work with, it’s that constant up and down,’ he explains. ‘You hope that in fifty years’ time, there will be more ups than there are downs, and that we can contribute to that.’

Ultimately, they see their mission as helping young people to become champions who enrich their communities, while knowing there is a network of support for them to fall back on.